All posts tagged Change

The “Streak” and the False Pressure of Sanctification

Permit me to have a few “high school athlete” reminisces.  There were a couple of occasions when as a baseball pitcher I took a no-hitter past the sixth inning (o-kay, so maybe these are Khoury league memories).  A strange thing happened.  Although I was having great success, I began to feel pressure.  I had gotten at least 18 consecutive batters out (the entire line up twice) without giving up so much as a hit, but now I was the one feeling fearful.  How crazy is that?  They should have been nervous, not me.

What was going on?  My mindset changed.  No longer was I just trying to get the next batter out, I was thinking about how to get the next nine batters out…how disappointed I would be if someone got a hit…the story in our local newspaper…putting the game ball on my shelf…how klutzy the second baseman was and the threat he posed to my accomplishment…(you get the idea).  I became a streaker (don’t let you imagination get carried away) instead of a pitcher.

In counseling I see many people struggle with the same type of issue.  They do good for “a while” (i.e., no anger episode, keeping the house in order, avoiding pornography, taking “what if” anxiety thinking captive, consistently having a daily devotion etc…) then they feel the pressure of “doing good,” fail, and feel more miserable because of their streak being broken.  Maybe they were in a support group and had to go back to the dreaded “white chip.”  Maybe they have to face the scorn of a spouse who says, “See, I knew you weren’t serious about changing.”  Maybe they just have to live with the thought, “If I can’t beat this struggle after 12 good days, how will I ever beat it after a bad day?”

Let us ask ourselves a few questions.  (1) How does God think about our streaks?  (2) Does a streak have any impact on our next choice, conversation, or temptation?  (3) How can we “do good” without creating a sense of mounting pressure?

First, I believe our streaks mean much more to us than they do to God.  God knows our heart perfectly (Prov 24:12).  We are the ones who have become deceived about our current condition as our streak advances (Jer 17:9).   We are the ones who begin to believe maybe I have finally defeated sin.  God knows better.  God desires a heart that is seeking hard after Him (Micah 6:8).  God is the one who designed sanctification (the process of spiritual maturity) to occur progressively (over a lifetime).  God wants our desire to put sin to death to be constant (Rom 8:13).  The believer who gets to heaven with the longest streak does not get the seat next to Jesus at the great wedding feast.

Second, we must recognize that streaks do not matter as much as fundamentals (to borrow from the baseball metaphor above).  Throwing strike one does not carve a groove in the air that the second pitch will follow like a tire in the rut of an old dirt road.  However, good pitching mechanics do allow for more consistent pitching.  The application is that we must learn from every temptation (whether we overcome or succumb).  A better question than “how long is my sinless streak?” is “have I learned from each temptation better ways of overcoming and am I putting these into practice?”  God recognizes that wisdom and humility are more effective at grooming character than streaks (Prov 3:5-7).

Third, we must recognize that we never out grow the Gospel.  The Christian life is a perpetual coming to the end of ourselves and relying totally on God again (Luke 9:23-25).  We don’t put the blood of Christ on lay away until we get this sin thing under control (Heb 10:14).  We come to him daily, hourly, and moment-by-moment for it is only by His Spirit that we bear the fruit that uproots the works of the flesh (Gal 5:16-24).

Precision within Idolatry

Note: This post was originally published on the Biblical Counseling Coalition blog “Grace & Truth.” I would highly recommend this organization as a clearinghouse for excellent materials in Biblical Counseling. This post has since been critiqued by Dr. Jay Adams on his blog at nouthetic.org. Next week I will post a reply to Dr. Adams’ critique in which I hope to demonstrate that the content of this blog is not an attempt to be “new” to draw an audience, but rooted in Scriptural directives and example.

One of the areas in which I believe Biblical Counseling can grow is the precision with which we think of idolatry. I am not referring to our ability to identify the object of idolatry: a person, money, an experience, etc… Neither do I mean just singling out the desire that fuels an idolatry: pleasure, control, peace, etc… Both of these are important.

But I believe we can be precise in our understanding of idolatry in another way. An idol (by definition) replaces God. More accurately, it tends to substitute for some aspect of God. Rarely do modern people call their idols “god”; we just rely on them for some particular thing only God can do. Therefore, because God relates to humanity in many different ways, we can turn to our idols in just as many ways.

For purpose of illustration, I will coin the phrases “idols of worship” and “idols of comfort.” Each is meant to capture different aspects of God we can replace.

Idols of Worship

  • With these idols we celebrate the object of our affection.
  • We pursue it with passion because we find it delightful. We try to savor and master the experience.
  • The mode of worship for these idols is pleasure
  • If you will, this is an idol we “sing to.”
  • These idols would have a tendency to stem from our raw sin nature and deem God to be less desirable.

Idols of Comfort

With these idols we turn to them for refuge.

  • When life gets hard we turn to these false gods believing they can provide safety or a form of escape.
  • The mode of worship towards these idols is trust.
  • If you will, this is an idol we “pray to.”
  • These idols typically emanate from experiences of suffering and perceive God to be less available, relevant, or dependable.

Both forms of idolatry share some essential commonality. God has been replaced. The replacement is incapable of sustaining what is being asked. The person will experience forms of disappointment and pain.

Yet the two forms of idolatry are different in important ways. Idols of worship are “classic” idols. Idols of comfort are “subtle” idols. The first is pursued for its own sake. The latter is pursued as a means to an end. The first insults God. The latter doubts God.

What is the relevance of this discussion? Does it change counseling methodology? Does it impact our theology of counseling? I believe it does.

Impact on Methodology

In both cases, the goal is to get to right beliefs about God through Scripture and by repentance. However, the “fear of God” that leads to repentance is very different. Idols of comfort already know fear. They are looking for something to be strong. Idols of worship are more rooted in pride and think they’ve already found what they’re looking for.

The words spoken to someone struggling with an idol of comfort should be more tender. The trustworthiness and understanding of the counselor serves as an ambassador for the trustworthiness and compassion of God. They are drawn from their idol. Dependence is natural and desired. Usually the scariest part of repentance and faith for these people is the absence of control.

The words spoken to someone struggling with an idol of worship are spoken to someone who does not yet see their need to be rescued. They are often still an evangelist for their idol. Their idol serves them and they want to know if God will do the same. More cognitive, relational, and emotional structures have to be torn down and built from scratch.

Impact on Theology

These are not the only categories for idolatry that could be developed. Each way that God relates to man can reveal its own flavor(s) of idolatry. We can try to replace or subsidize any aspect of God’s character or any of God’s activities towards us. The emotions that we are playing to in our false worship become indicators of how what we need points us back to God.

With this conception of idolatry, I believe it allows us to speak of the influence of suffering upon idolatry in clearer, more refined, and more compassionate ways. Our compassion does not have to be the mere avoidance of condescension (“I am a bad sinner too”) or empathy for injustice (“I would be tempted in the same way.”). Our compassion can be more descriptively robust without leaving our anthropology behind or compromising biblical standards.

Extended conversations about pain, neglect, disappointment, and other forms of suffering paint a picture of how someone sought comfort before they knew there was a Comforter. In these cases, repentance may be a very sweet transfer of trust. Conviction may feel like fear and anticipation more than guilt. In which case, idolatry would be “seen through” as much as “put off.”

In these possibilities, the core categories (idolatry) and movements (repentance) of change are the same but the experience (emotions) and role of the counselor (confrontation for idols of worship; directive compassion for idols of comfort) is different. I would hope as we grow in our precision of understanding idolatry that it would enable us to capture the experience of more hurting people, win their trust, and point them to all of who God is.

Join the Conversation:

  •  What other categories of idolatry would you suggest? What is distinct about that category and what part of human experience does it help us understand?
  • What dangers do you see in adding diagnostic categories within idolatry? In your opinion, does the potential reward merit the risk?

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Counseling Theory” post which address other facets of this subject.

Moving Our Priorities Beyond First, Second, Third

From time to time we all think about priorities.  Usually when life is getting a little out of control and we know something is going to have to give.  When we think of priorities we often think in terms of “rank.”

Let’s say, for conversation’s sake, we have a husband (Steve) who is trying to get his time priorities back in line.  He knows he wants to love God will all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength by managing his relationships and activities in biblical manner (the charts below are Steve’s attempt to determine what loving God looks like in practice).  So he sits down and lists his priorities and ranks them.  He creates something that looks like chart 1.

Item

Rank

Wife

1

Children

2

Job

3

House/Recreation 4

This is good chart.  Most of us would applaud Steve for having things in the right order.  However, there is a false assumption embedded in the chart.  When we prioritize things by rank we often assume each item is equidistant from those things above and below it.  In Steve’s case we would assume the “value” score (out of a total of 100) would look like chart 2.

Item

Rank

Assumed Value

Wife

1

40

Children

2

30

Job

3

20

House/Recreation

4

10

If this were the case Steve would spend twice as much time with his wife as he does at work and three times as much time with the kids as he does working on the house or personal recreation.  This is why we quit making lists of our priorities.  Life just will not cooperate and the list never seems realistic.

I believe it is more accurate and effective to conceptualize our priorities in terms of a “value rank” system.  Steve would still list his key relationships and activities.  However, before ranking them he would assign them a value based on a total 100 score.  From these value scores, Steve would then identify the rank of each item and seek to manage his life accordingly.  This would look like chart 3.

Item Value Score Rank
Wife 35 1
Children 32 2
Job 23 3
House/Recreation 10 4

Whether you agree with the numbers or not, please follow the concept.  There are varying distances between successive ranks.  If we added more items, then the difference in value would become more pronounced.  We could make it a bit more complex by discussing how work is a way Steve provides for his wife and kids, but we won’t go there now.  We will seek to make two points of application.

First, we will look at how value scoring changes the way we think about sin.  Let’s say in Steve’s stress he takes up internet gambling.  He is spending time and money that should be devoted to family on his new “hobby.”  Steve is also gambling at work.  In a simple rank system (see chart 1) everything would just get dropped one place (chart 4).

Item Rank

Gambling

1

Wife

2

Children

3

Job

4

House/Recreation

5

Steve could probably quiet his conscience with this logic.  “It’s not that bad.  My wife is still second.  My kids are still third.  How far off can I be?”  We could answer Steve many ways, but let’s keep looking at the concept of priorities.  If we walked Steve though a value scoring system (see chart 3), he would see the reality of his sin much clearer (chart 5).

Item Value Score (Previous Score) Rank

Gambling

40   (0)

1

Wife

10   (35)

4

Children

18   (32)

3

Job

27   (23)

2

House/Recreation

5   (10)

5

In order for gambling to become number one it has to accumulate the necessary number of value points.  This significantly shuffles all the other numbers.  Work also jumps because of the increased need for money.  The kids take priority over the wife, because she “nags” about money and housework.  We can begin to see the mess sin makes of life even before the life altering consequences of sin begin to emerge.  It makes sense why the two Great Commandments (Matthew 22:37-40) are commands of priority (love) not prohibition (thou shall not).

Second, let’s also use this concept to see perfectionism more clearly.  The perfectionist can utilize the value scoring system to see reality in a different way.  Let’s say Steve never started internet gambling, instead he is simply trying to earn his #1 Husband, #1 Father, #1 Employee, #1 Yard, and #1 Golfer mug all at the same time.  In this case, Steve would view his “rank” score simply as a matter of order.  Which relationship or activity do I master first, second, third, and fourth?  He would not see his error until he created a value score (chart 6).

Item Rank Value Score (Perfection)
Wife 1 100
Children 2 100
Job 3 100
House/Recreation 4 100

If Steve cloned himself three times (equally 4 total Steves), then this chart would be great!  However, Steve is faced with the reality of being a finite human bound within the restrictions of time and his current season of life.  God has only called Steve to perform at the level of excellence that can be achieved in a 168 hour week (or 672 hour month) based upon Steve’s abilities, resources, season of life, and opportunities (managed within biblical priorities).

So what is our take away from this discussion of priorities? Hopefully, we have found a way of thinking about priorities that allows us to avoid both minimizing our sin and stressing out about perfection.  In addition, I hope we have gained a greater a more practical understanding of why Jesus said that all of the law and the prophets (the Bible) hangs on having our priorities (loves) in the right order.  If we have done that much, we have equipped ourselves to study the Bible more practically and with a motivation of worship.

Good Words; Unpleasant Experiences

There are many words that we can say with a positive feeling – growing, learning, patience, or courage. Any reasonable person would think it was a good thing to have more of these qualities. We look up to people who have these qualities and impress their importance upon our children.

Yet each one of them is unpleasant to attain. Growing means I haven’t arrived yet. Learning requires acknowledging areas of ignorance. Patience can only be expressed in the presence of an agitant. Courage reveals that I am afraid.

I believe it was this paradox that drove the Beatitudes. Think about this list of words and phrases: poor in spirit, mourn, meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercy, pure in heart, and peacemakers. Jesus said these were blessed dispositions.

They are blessed not because they are pleasant, but because they are worthy and they are evidences of the kind of life we were designed to live. They force us to live authentically in community and acknowledge our weaknesses. When we do that, we are blessed.

The challenge is not to put pleasant experiences ahead of character. We want both and we can have both, but only when one (character) comes first. This is such a basic truth. We teach it to our children every time they complain about studying. It is the foundation of any program of budgeting, dieting, or fitness.

But we all try to cheat the system, and we all doubt it when we are at the beginning or middle of the process. We think, “This is good. I feel fear, insecurity, doubt, etc…” That is when we need the courage (a good word with unpleasant experience) to admit our doubt to people who will remind us of what is true.

Yet it is the doubt that would cause us to shrink back and become fake or offensive to those who should be our ally. If we become offensive (allowing our fear to express itself as anger), then push away those who could be our encouragement and experience the guilt we feared for now legitimate reasons. If we become fake (allowing our fear to cause us to hide), then we are unable to receive the encouragement given because it is not able to fit our actual experience.

The point is not to be naïve about the “good words” of life. They are good, but they are not easy. And this is for good reason; every good thing is a reflection of our Holy God. I will not ever measure up to good, because I was not created to compete with goodness, but to surrender to it and worship it. But this worship and surrender is not to a standard or concept, but to embodiment of good – Jesus Christ.

It is this realization that allows me to fall forward (whether falling is the bowing of worship or the repentance after sin) towards good. I am relieved of the burden of goodness (I have been given the righteousness of Christ, Romans 5:17) and free for the chase after the character of my Father like any child longs to be like their Papa (Ephesians 5:1).

This childlike imitation is probably the only time when the effort to become “good” is not a burden, but remains the sheer delight it was intended to be. May we be content to chase hard after God and His character like the beloved children we are.

God’s Words for Living with Liars: Psalm 120

Case Study: Gabe’s father was a man that no one would trust. The adage, “You can’t be a good addict without being a good liar,” fit his old man quite well. Gabe grew up hearing his father rant that he hadn’t been drinking as he staggered through the house (at least until his mother quit asking/accusing).

As Gabe grew older his father would occasionally take Gabe around town. When his father spent money or talked to women Gabe would always hear, “Don’t tell your mother about this or we’ll get in trouble” with a wink. At first it made him feel big for his father to trust him with a secret. As Gabe grew older and started connecting more dots, it made him angry.

Gabe’s mother wasn’t much better about living in reality. As she took Gabe to church or school events, she would always talk as if their life was great. She talked about how excited they were to go on their next trip or go on and on about her new clothes. Gabe could never figure out how she could be so bitter and isolated at home yet so “peppy” in public.

At home Gabe’s mother fluctuated between talking to Gabe as a friend about all his father’s failings and betrayal, and just letting her bitterness spew out in derogatory rants about whatever Gabe did.  When Gabe would ask “What’s wrong, Mama? Why are talking to me like that?” She would scold him “Nothing’s wrong, if you would just do as you’re told everything would be fine.”

Gabe got the message both his parents were sending – if you don’t like the way life is, just make up your own reality and force others to live in it (by deception, manipulation, or emotional force). Gabe mastered his lessons and was soon an adept liar himself.

In college, however, he met his now wife for whom he gained an authentic love. It scared him, because he knew that to truly love her he must let her actually know him. He would have to surrender his power to “create his own reality” and force her to live in it. But she was worth it. As he surrendered his power (later he realized it was repentance) he found that life was more enjoyable in the “real reality.”

While Gabe was wrestling with this change, he read Psalm 120 in his daily Bible readings. It was shocking to read his testimony written thousands of years before he lived it. He used Psalm 120 as an outline for his prayer of surrender to truth and has turned to it frequently as an outline for prayer when the temptation to deceive returns to his mind.

Pre-Questions: This case study is meant to challenge you to think biblically about the real struggles of life. These questions will not be answered completely in the sections below. But they do represent the kind of struggles that are being wrestled with in Psalm 120. Use the question to both stir application and to give you new insight into the psalm.

  • How is lying a form of “creating your own reality”?
  • How do bonds of family and friendship enable the liar to force others to live in their fictitious world?
  • What type of influences would Gabe’s parent’s example have on his life?
  • What could Gabe do to ground himself to live in the reality as God has created and providentially guided it?

Read Psalm 120 in your preferred Bible translation. The “rewrite” of Psalm 120 below is an attempt to capture the words that God would give Gabe to pray (Romans 8:26-27). This would be something Gabe would need to pray many times as he struggled to overcome temptations to lie and celebrate God’s faithfulness to deliver him from his parent’s lifestyle.

A re-write of Psalm 120

1. I remember when it first struck me that I was a son of liars. It broke my heart and I called to the Lord. I felt like everyone (much less God) would/should shun me, but He answered my prayer.

2. “God, pluck me from the life I am living,” I cried desperately. “I have lived a lie so long I am no longer sure what the Truth is. You must show me. Deliver me from the lying ways of my father and mother. Deliver me from the deceitful tongue I have skillfully trained in my own mouth.”

3. I have already given the first nineteen years of my life to lies. What more could my deceitful tongue want?

4. I know what it wanted. Like a savage warrior sent from the Father of Lies, it wanted to sink its deadly arrows into my heart and take my very life (every relationship, dream, and hope I have). It would kill my every dream and as I wept over the brokenness burn the carcasses to ashes. I have seen lies consume my parents. I know their end game.

5. Woe to me that I was raised by liars. That my examples were an addict, codependent, womanizer, enabler, swindler, and hypocrite.

6. Too long have I lived according to their example. I felt the pain of their empty words and pass the pain on. I hated peace because it cost truth, until You taught me to love truth and trust You for peace. Too long I lived there, but now I long to be a citizen of Your way.

7. I am for true peace now. I finally see that there is no other kind. Give me the strength to continue to speak truth only, because I know the light of truth will cause great hostility with my parent’s lies of darkness.

Passages for Further Study: Exodus 20:16; Psalm 58; Proverbs 13:5, 15:4, 19:9; Jeremiah 17:5-13; John 8:42-47; Romans 9:1; Ephesians 4:25; James 3:1-12

Post Questions: Now that you have read Psalm 120, examined how Gabe might rewrite it for his situation, and studied several other passages, consider the following questions:

  • How should Gabe come to view his parents as he strives to become a person of integrity?
  • How should Gabe manage the conflicts with his parents that will inevitable come as he commits to speak only truth?
  • How would your answers to the “pre-questions” have changed as a result of reflecting on Psalm 120?
  • For what instances of living amongst liars and the subsequent struggle to be a person of integrity do you need to re-write your own version of Psalm 120?

Generational Sin: Destiny or Context?

This post is meant to offer guidance to common “What now?” questions that could emerge from Pastor JD’s sermon “Consequences: 2 Samuel 12-16” preached at The Summit Church Saturday/Sunday February 5-6, 2011.

When we see and hear how the sin of David affected his son Absalom many of us may begin to experience fear. This fear is compounded if we consider God’s words in the second of the Ten Commandments.

“You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:5-6).”

The gracious disproportion of numbers is not much comfort if you are in one of the first three generations. So we have to ask, “What is this verse talking about?” Some would say it means that God punishes children for the sins of their parents. God has heard His people ask this question before and answered it in Ezekiel 18:19-21.

“Yet you say, ‘Why should the son suffer for the iniquity of the father? When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. But IF a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die (capitalization added).’”

The question we are asking pivots on, “What makes the ‘if’ so hard?” We are all wicked in the sense that we are born in sin and righteousness is unnatural. So the link between Exodus 20 and Ezekiel 18 seems to be that it is harder for someone to turn from sin when their family of origin rejects God.

One reason for this is that following God is unnatural. Proverbs 22:15a describes all our beginnings; “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child.” There is a natural consequence to absence of godly parenting – we go in the way that seems right to us which ends in death (Prov. 14:12, 16:25).

But there seems to be more to it than natural consequences in Exodus 20. I would describe it as a “life context with momentum.” There is more than the absence of good; there is the presence of bad. A child learns a lifestyle, collects hurts, gathers fears, and takes on goals. This is the child’s life context for years, even decades.

Like braces on teeth, this molds the child, even if the child can tell the context is wrong and doesn’t want to continue it. The child only knows what not to do. In avoiding the evil they know, there are many more dysfunctions to fall into. After all there is only “one way” that leads to life (John 14:6) and many ways that seem good that lead to destruction (Matt. 7:13-14).

I believe this gives us insight into another passage that speaks of influences beyond our immediate life and choice – Ephesians 6:10-20 on spiritual warfare. It is interesting that the only active steps we are called to in spiritual warfare are to “put on the armor (v. 11, 13)” and “stand firm (v. 13).”

In light of this discussion, I would say this means:

  1. Study the Bible diligently to “put on the armor of God”: to learn God’s truth, gain a vision for God’s righteousness, embrace and live in the gospel of peace, by faith resist the lies of your upbringing, trust in God’s salvation, and ask the Spirit to penetrate these things into your heart.
  2. Understand the context of your family of origin. Examine what you learned inaccurately from them—what things they taught you to be good, valuable or desirable that are not. What things did they model to be scarce or withhold that are plentiful in Christ? Know these influences “with momentum” so that you can “stand firm” in God’s armor when they push you towards destruction.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Counseling Theory” post which address other facets of this subject.

Creative Evolution: The Best of Both Worlds?

A Counselor Reflects on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

“One reason why many people find Creative Evolution so attractive is that it gives one much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences… The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost (p.26-7).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

As we examine this quote, I think it would do us better to examine ourselves than to join in the debate regarding evolution vs. creationism, old earth vs. young earth, or whether the seven days of creation were literal 24 hour days. That is not to diminish the significance of these topics, but to highlight another aspect of C.S. Lewis’ quote that might otherwise get lost.

We all have a tendency to “tame” God. Some of do it scientifically (as in the example above), but others do it philosophically (debating the implications of truth rather than obeying it), pragmatically (identifying the “obvious” reasons why their life is an exception), or emotionally (rationalizing that “God understands how important this is to me”). The end result is the same we can switch God on when we want, but otherwise He will not bother us.

The greatest danger is that we can see this tendency as other’s approach to “taming” God more than our own. The emotionalist gets lost in and dislikes the logic of the philosopher.  The pragmatist is turned off by the volatile, self-centeredness of the emotionalist. In their dislike for the other’s approach to “taming” God they can give thanks that they are not like the others (Luke 18:11).

Another problem is that we get distracted by the “great danger” of the other approaches to “taming” God when, in reality, those dangers pose no threats to us. The philosopher can (rightly) talk about how pragmatism is eroding the moral foundation of our

culture. But all of his correctness does little to protect his own soul or shape his character more into the likeness of Christ.

In the end of the discussion we would be right…yet unchanged. Would this not be what Paul warned Timothy against when he spoke of those “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power (2 Tim 3:5)”?

Again, let me say, I am not diminishing the importance of debates on evolution, the methods of ethical thought, or any other subject to which Scripture speaks. My caution is merely that we should be most passionate and convincing on the subjects that pose the greatest harm to our own souls.

This is not to foster self-centeredness, but because a changed life is the most convincing argument for the power of the Gospel. A “tame” god never changed anyone’s life. A “tame” god is like Mary’s little lamb—“wherever Mary went her lamb (“tame” god) was sure to go (approve).”

With all this being said, the big question to be asked is not, “How can people believe in evolution?” but “How have I tried to ‘tame’ God?”

For the purpose of integrity and example, let me list my tendencies:

  • Being too busy – I can often go through major portions of “my day” without intentionally reflecting on God’s will as it relates to “my schedule.” This functionally “tames” God’s influence in my life.
  • Comparative thinking – I often think that if I am being more faithful than 51% of Christians, then that is the equivalent of obedience. I thereby silence my conscience and again functionally “tame” God’s influence in my life.
  • Philosophical thinking – I am particularly good at the “slippery slope” argument with God (extreme action A is similar to act of obedience B, so God wouldn’t want me to do A therefore I should avoid B). This again functionally “tames” God’s influence in my life.

That’s enough about me J. But I encourage you to consider the question “How do you ‘tame’ God’s influence in your life?” and ask you to give it the same passionate reflection and action that you would give to the creation vs. evolution debate (or your Christian debate of choice).

10 Pre-Marital Questions on Sex (Part 6)

This series of blogs comes from FAQ’s from the guys in Summit’s “Preparing for Marriage” ministry. They represent a conglomeration of questions from many different husbands-to-be during the Engaged Discovery Weekend. If you are interested in serving as a marriage mentor or are engaged, click here to learn more about Summit’s “Preparing for Marriage” ministry.

How do you overcome expectations you have from past sexual experiences?

This question is packed with scenarios, both positive and negative: the expectation that sex will be used for control, the expectation of a certain energy level or spark in sex, the expectation of “great sex” in a bad relationship or “mediocre sex” in a good relationship, the expectation of inevitable betrayal, or the “practical” expectation of how we will move from foreplay through intercourse to afterglow.

This is also a vitally important question. Foreign expectations (positive or negative) have a detrimental impact on a marriage. No longer is a couple crafting a life that is an expression of how God is making these two individual lives into one unique, mutually satisfying relationship. Rather, foreign expectations mixes oneness with fears, hurts, pleasures, and hopes from other relationships.

We should pause and reflect for a moment on a general dynamic of how sin works. Sin creates false standards and tries to convince us to live within or in light of them. Lying creates the standard (expectation) that the truth is expendable in the name of self-protection or convenience. This effect exists whether we are the one lying or the one being lied to. All future communication is filtered through this lens of convenience and/or suspicion.

Drug usage creates the standard (expectation) of an artificial high and the ability to escape stressful circumstances. “Normal” is now measured as boring or unacceptable. “Stress” is now deemed something that must be chemically escaped. Friends and family now live as if the drug user “cannot handle” things that life requires and begin to make unhealthy compensations.

The same happens with sexual sin (whether you committed the sin or the sin was committed against you). It creates a false standard by which we enter future experience. We begin to overcome by recognizing that this struggle is not exclusive to the domain of sexuality. We have faced a similar dynamic with any sin (and its influence) we have seen God purge from our lives.

After taking the encouragement from this reflection, we need to articulate the falseness of our expectations. The degree of impact our expectations have is determined by the degree to which we believe those expectations to be right and true. Part of “taking every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5b)” is to see the lie we are tempted to believe as false and detestable.

  • The past girlfriend/wife who was a passionate lover is not the standard of a good wife. That reduces what it means to be a good wife to being a sex object.
  • The past girlfriend/wife who punished you by withholding sex is not something to be conquered in this marriage. That imposes a history and motive on your bride that she has not earned.
  • The past girlfriend/wife who cheated on you is not something to be controlled in this marriage. That makes you a fearful slave to something that “could happen” and creates the kind of relational strain that only manifests the kind of awkwardness that confirms your fears.

Articulating the expectation allows you to approach God with it in a new way. We now come unconvinced by (or at least willing to question) our expectations. We now desire freedom from our sin-induced expectations more than fulfillment of them. We no longer view them as “good” or necessary to be “safe.” These expectations only masqueraded as light, but were darkness. We believed they offered life, but now see (or are beginning to see) they offered death. Sin had fooled us again into using these expectations as a God-substitute as the basis for our pleasure, identity, security, or protection.

In light of this journey, we can begin to see that God offers sex in marriage as a portrait of the Gospel and as the standard by which we think about marital sex. Sex is no longer good or safe primarily because it meets our criteria developed from our past experiences, but because it conforms to the design of our Creator who makes sex for our good, our pleasure, and as a portrait of something greater.

This reality of God’s design for sex can now capture our imagination (the source of our pleasurable expectations and fears) in a greater way than our past experiences ever did. This captivation and delight in the Gospel expressed through sex is something that, like all other emotionally-related experiences, have an ebb and flow. Therefore, we should expect this is a process we will go through many times as the expectation fades. But that is what we should “expect” this kind of change to look like based upon Paul’s instructions about these kinds of things in 2 Corinthians 10:3-6.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Sex and Sexuality” post which address other facets of this subject.

Three Meanings of “This Is Too Hard”

If you have walked with many people through circumstances that are challenging, you’ve doubtless heard them say, “This is too hard.” Chances are that phrase has struck you differently as you’ve heard different individuals speak it. For some you likely felt compassion, others that they were making excuses, and maybe even that they didn’t want to try.

There are many factors that go into our reaction to someone being intimidated by an important step in their progress. This post will not be able to examine them all, but we will look at one – what does this person mean when he or she says, “This is too hard.”

Frequently, I find that the individual does not know and this adds to their difficulty of discerning how to overcome the difficult. As I explore with them the possibility of this seemingly simply sentence it allows a conversation that is beginning to feel unsafe (a possible meaning of “too hard”) to feel safe and creates the emotional space to think with greater clarity about the challenge.

With that said, let’s consider three possible meanings of “This is too hard.”

  1. The skill-level of what is being asked is too difficult (practically challenging).
  2. The complexity of the concept being described is too great (intellectually challenging).
  3. The level of emotional transparency required is too revealing (relationally challenging).

These are three very different statements, which in a moment of feeling overwhelmed, are not always easy to differentiate. But think about the consequences of leaving these differences un-clarified.

  • Offering greater practical advice to someone who is struggling to be vulnerable can come across as condescending or pressuring.
  • Offering simpler phrases to someone who doesn’t feel like they have the ability to do what is asked can feel demeaning.
  • Questioning the authenticity of someone who does not follow the terminology of a conversation can turn your effort to help into an assault from the “other team.”

I am not claiming that these three options are an exhaustive list of what, “This is too hard,” might mean. But I have found that if I ask someone to clarify which of these options fit their struggle best, then most often they are either able to pick the one that fits or articulate better the challenge they are facing.

From my experience, the most difficult to admit is the third (emotional transparency) because of the level of trust and transparency required to make this admission. In these situations it can be hard to tell if someone is (A) genuinely committed to the process of change and intimidated by the process, or (B) trying to find a way to say “I tried” without having to deal with the real issue in their life.

However, if I am patient as I speak with them, then with time those who are in “category A” tend to respond appreciatively to the process while those in “category B” often move from being overwhelmed (“This is too hard”) to defensive (in various forms of blame-shifting or personalizing the conversation).

This biggest take away I would recommend from this reflection is – slow down when a conversation hits an impasse phrase like “This is too hard.” Do not assume you are hearing what your friend is saying or, even, that your friend is clear about what he or she is feeling at the moment. Slowing down a conversation is often the best way that we can honor one another, truly understand each other, and, thereby, actually benefit one another.

Angry at the Gospel

The gospel is not just hard. The gospel is insulting. The gospel tells me things I don’t want to hear and asks me to do things I don’t want to do. I don’t want to be told to take the log out of my eye before I take the speck out of anyone else’s. I don’t want to sacrifice my comfort for the love of others.

But those things are just hard. I can “cowboy up,” kick myself in the pants, and get them done if I need to. I can be “man enough” to admit when I was wrong. I can see the advantage of sacrifice, even its joy, and forsake my preferences. I can do “hard,” if I want to bad enough.

But the gospel is also insulting. The gospel looks in my eyes and without blinking says, “Without me you are nothing (John 15:5).” When I respond in astonished offense (1 Cor. 1:20-25), the gospel doesn’t back down, apologize, or change its tone. The gospel calls to me again, “You know it’s true. Surrender.”

At that moment I am faced with the most profound choice of my life – if I refuse to accept the offense of the gospel, then I am choosing to be offended by everything else in life. After I’ve heard the gospel then I will respond to every fault (my own and others) with either the fury of my own righteousness or by surrendering to Christ’s righteousness.

This is the story of many angry people. Angry people are passionate people who are willing to do whatever it takes to makes wrong, right – at least as they define “right” and “whatever it takes.” The thought of surrendering to the standard and will of another is the antithesis of anger.

To be anything other than angry is to let evil win – at least in their mind. And that makes sense. The gospel has always had a way of making it look like evil was about to win. The limp body of Jesus did not look like our strong deliverer on the cross. The early church scurrying from city to city in persecution did not look like a great gospel movement destined to change the world.

The gospel always has a way of looking more like Clark Kent than Superman and asking us to do the same. Sinful anger feels like our Superman suit, but we never realize it’s laced with kryptonite. As we prove (again and again) our inability to play the role of superhero (Messiah), we hear the call of the gospel again, “Take off the cape and put on my righteousness. The cape doesn’t fit you. Trust me. You’ve just proven it would be better if you did.”

“No, it’s not like that. This situation was different… That person wasn’t cooperative… I was fine until I lost my cool… I’m smart enough to learn from my mistakes… If I made the mess, I want the chance to make it right,” and on and on go our excuses. We realize again – if I refuse to accept the offense of the gospel, then I am choosing to be offended by everything else in life.

We walk away knowing we were wrong and convinced we were right. The gospel comes across as the jerk who is always right, but this “jerk” is too nice to hate so we feel like the jerk for being mad at the One who sincerely wanted to rescue us from us.

That is another profound tension of Scripture. Jesus was incredibly easy to hate, yet He is also the most endearing figure in history. Most world religions that reject Christianity (at least its exclusive claims) love Jesus and revere His teachings. We find we are just like everyone else – constantly in need of Jesus and resisting His offer to enter our life and transform it from the inside out.

So what will you do? Will you embrace your weakness to receive God’s strength through the gospel? Or, will you cling to your strength and be offended by everything you can’t do? Will you embrace Christ’s righteousness on your behalf as a gift? Or, will you live in a world of land mines (your own anger) where your righteousness is the standard that judges the world and demands justice? Choose the freedom that comes with the gospel’s offense.