Tag Archives: sinner

Faking Spirituality

I wrote this piece for my weekly column. It was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer in June of 2015.

One of the worst sins I’ve ever committed was actually committed over several years. During my early years working in ministry, I pretended to be perfect. When I left for work every day, I put on my “perfect Christian” mask. I hid any struggle with sin, temptation, and anger. I made excuses and ignored my own shortcomings. Eventually, I stopped talking openly with anyone about anything that might look un-Christian in my life. When I taught, the only sins I ever acknowledged were innocuous, like driving too fast, which is an imperfection of mine that’s well known to any reader of this paper’s traffic ticket listings. I believed that perfection was expected of minsters, and because I wasn’t perfect, I faked it. It may seem excessive to identify this as a terrible sin, but it is because it is a denial of the central message of Christianity: that all people sin and need forgiveness. Pretending to be perfect is self-deceiving and denies our need for God. Beyond distancing us from God, it also drives others away from Him, either because they see our hypocrisy or they see being “good enough” as unattainable.

The saddest misconception about Christianity that drives folks away from knowing God exists primarily amongst Christians: the myth of perfection. Whereas the previous columns in this series have largely addressed those who walk away from God in frustration/hurt, this week will primarily address folks in the church who believe this falsehood.

Believing we are, or ought to be, perfect is spiritual poison. When we look at the life of Jesus, there is no-one that he strikes out against more vehemently than religious folks, specifically the Pharisees, who couldn’t see or confess their own failings. Most were so convinced of their own perfection that they couldn’t ask for forgiveness because they didn’t believe they needed it. They lived for the praise of others, thrived on comparing themselves to “sinners”, and constantly bragged of their righteousness. This puffing up results in blindness to the seriousness of our own sins.

False perfection is also poisonous to relationships. Maintaining the illusion of perfection keeps us from confessing or seeking help. While living this way, I often wished I could talk about my struggles, but wouldn’t do so because I did’t want anyone to know how imperfect I am. Hiding secrets isolates us. Conversely, openness and accountability knits us together in community, because calling on each other in times of need teaches trust and interdependence.

The most profound lesson I learned from being open happened when I talked openly about struggling with sin while teaching one day. A young man approached me afterward, tearfully opening up about his own struggles. He thanked me for being honest, because he too had been hiding everything for fear of being condemned by others. Being vulnerable provides a safe environment for others to be vulnerable. The most common response I hear to openness about my own imperfection is appreciation for being real and human.

Living life- honestly acknowledging our imperfection- is risky. It’s possible that others will judge or ostracize you for being a sinner. I discussed with a friend how tempting it is to want other Christians to be human, but not too human. It’s easy to succumb to the temptation to believe that God should forgive our brand of sin, but not the sin of others. This is the power of acknowledging our imperfection/dependance on God’s forgiveness. It emphasizes God’s mercy, rather than our self-righteousness. This makes judging others harder to justify. Awareness of our dependance helps us empathize with others in the same predicament.

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Your Bad Habits and Your Brain

head-607480_960_720.jpgI am a magnet for bad habits and addictions. I know I am not alone in this. I have spoken to scores of men who have developed unwanted patterns in their work, relationships, stress management, and leisure. Part of what puzzled me about my habits over the years is that many of them are things I don’t really want to do, but it seemed like my mind would shift into automatic pilot time and again, allowing me to live out some impulse that I’d just as soon avoid. The following is a newspaper column I wrote looking at brain functions and why they make habitual behaviors so difficult to break.

This article was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 9/9/15.

There was a large wooded park with a lake behind the house my family lived in while I was attending high school. During the four years we lived in that home, my siblings and I frequently spent hours wandering through the woods around that lake. When we did, we usually walked along the trails and paths, because it was easier. Occasionally, I remember straying from the well-worn paths and crashing through the brush. This usually took longer and resulted in scratches, scrapes, and swearing to yourself that you’d stick to the path next time. The reason is obvious: well-worn pathways are easier to travel. There is a similar phenomena that takes place within the human brain. We all have a portion of our brain that controls motor functions and handles our actions/reactions during times of stress, often referred to as fight-or-flight moments. In moments when thinking isn’t possible and the body needs to act quickly, our actions will tend to follow the “well-worn paths” that exist within our brains. This is why athletes and soldiers practice the same movements over and over in training, to prepare them to act without thinking. It sometimes leads to strange behaviors under pressure. I recently read about soldiers collecting spent cartridges in combat, mimicking their repeated behavior on the shooting range. It’s a terrible decision to collect brass while being shot at, but the point is that it isn’t a decision. It’s rehearsed behavior. This is an extraordinary example, but there are far more common ones, like when a person reaches for a cigarette or drink without thinking – especially during times of stress. There’s a part of the brain that knows that a drink or a smoke helps manage stress, which makes this an easy pathway to develop in our brains.

A far more common example of this is seen in bad habits, particularly communication and coping habits that folks develop in their relationships. We learn to fight certain ways, and breaking those habits is difficult because it’s what we’ve memorized through repeated practice. We know our arguing strategies or our escape plans and go to them almost instinctively. Married couples often find themselves having arguments that follow the same course as every previous argument they’ve had over the last several years. Husbands sometimes respond to arguing by shutting down and running for the safety of the tv, late work days, or just hanging out in the garage. Wives learn to argue as effectively as possible or to hide out by focusing on the kids or some other part of life other than their spouse. The pattern repeats and repeats, even when it doesn’t make sense anymore or when both parties realize and acknowledge that it’s making them miserable. This is largely because they have found a pathway in their brains that works, even if it doesn’t. This easy path becomes the “go to” rut that they get stuck in, largely because it is practiced and repeated so often. Changing these trained behaviors can be terribly difficult, as anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit knows. Success can frequently be short-circuited by new stress or frustration, which sends the individual running back to the old behavior. The last few installments of this column have looked at poor communication habits that develop in marriage. Part of what makes these habits so very difficult to break is that developed pathway. We learn them and they stay learned until we unlearn them. Unlearning involves an intentional effort to change our attitude and that couples work as a team in changing the relationship patterns. Only by intentional working together, sometimes with the assistance of a counselor, (or by an act of God) are most of well-worn pathways replaced with new healthier ones. The first step is always to acknowledge the problem and choose to work toward overcoming the habit.

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Frog, Toad, Cookies, and Temptation

Originally published in the Patching Cracks column in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 4/24/14. I have done some some editing and made some additions here. 
Frog-and-Toad-illustratio-007.jpgOne of my favorite stories to read my daughter at bedtime is from The Adventures of Frog and Toad. In the story, Toad bakes a batch of cookies. He and Frog discover that they cannot stop eating the cookies because they are too delicious. They begin to devise ways to prevent themselves from eating the cookies by making it more difficult to give in to temptation. Frog called it: “Building up willpower.” They quickly discovered that if they wanted to eat the cookies badly enough they would find a way around obstacles. Eventually, Frog throws away all the cookies and proclaims: “we have lots and lots of willpower.” To which Toad responds: “You may keep it all, Frog, I am going home now to bake a cake.” It’s a funny story with an interesting point. The problem wasn’t the cookies, the problem was that they wanted the cookies more than they wanted to not eat them. The book of James touches on this idea when it addresses the things that are in our lives that cause temptation. It’s easy to blame God for giving us such temptations. However, temptation starts in us and are a product of our fallenness. In Romans Paul describes how the sin living in us seizes upon the law of God as a standard to rebel against. Sin drives us to do things we hate. He describes sin and the ensuing temptation as powerful and ruling over our bodies. As a result of this powerful force within us, even if the things we want are not in front of us, if we want them badly enough, we will go looking for them. Mind you, it is not the case that desire itself is bad. Desire is natural. Desire for food, pleasure, leisure, security, relationships, being right, or anything else are simply a part of how people are designed. Desire becomes destructive when it loses all checks and begins to cause damage. It can be seen in decisions made simply based on a desire with no concern for inevitable consequences and what is right or wrong. A common example is carelessly spoken words that are regretted the moment they are spoken. Other examples include extramarital affairs, the seemingly iron grip that pornography seems to have over the lives of many men, addictions, eating disorders, spending problems, etc. These typically involve normally healthy desires that become distorted and get out of control. James describes this as being dragged away by our own lusts. Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that the source of the problem is within us.

The solution for dealing with these sorts of issues begins with recognizing that if our problem is rooted internally, the solution will need to be external to some degree. The Bible describes the solution as allowing God to intervene and aid us in overcoming that which controls us. If we aren’t strong enough to defeat a problem on our own, we need someone who can aid us in doing so. Apart from a higher power intervening, we will find ourselves stuck. Paul explains this in Romans 7 & 8. New life in Jesus through God’s Spirit is the pathway to overcoming temptation. This is achieved through intimate relationship with the savior and discipleship. The Spirit supernaturally intercedes and enables us to overcome temptation. Sometimes this means confessing our sins and seeking accountability with our brothers in Christ. It begins by acknowledging to God that you are helpless to overcome your own sins and that you need Jesus to give us new life. Shortly thereafter we need to actually come under his Lordship by obeying his teachings, joining a body of believers, reading his word, and talking to him regularly.
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Where In the World is the Proverbs 31 Woman: Part 1 Understanding the Background

goodwifeguide-331x268Over the past few years, I’ve read several articles arguing varying perspectives on the ideal wife portrayed in Proverbs 31. Most of these articles have argued the matter in terms of whether or not this woman is a standard model for wives and women everywhere to aspire to be the best housewife possible in serving her 1950s family or an allegory for wisdom so as to remove the unattainable ideal that just serves to discourage women into standardized gender roles. I’ll admit that these characterizations are hyperbole, but I am exaggerating the extreme sides of this debate for a reason: because this text has become a bit of a tug-o-war passage for folks in the battle over the role of women in the church. Each side pulling for a gender political stance and taking pride in their position, sometimes without bothering to ask whether or not they are glorifying Christ in their stance. My intent in this post is not to engage either of these positions, but rather to offer an analysis of the text with an eye on shedding a little light as to what believers are actually supposed to do with these passages.

Preliminary Issues: Genre, Audience, and Context
In advance of the discussion, there are a few important concepts that need to be understood as a lens through which we must look in interpreting the passage. The first is the genre of literature being discussed. Wisdom literature, and more specifically the proverb, is a specific genre that needs to be understood on its own terms. Reading Proverbs isn’t like reading the instruction manual for your toaster. It’s a highly defined style of writing, featuring multiple sub-genres. In this case, it’s important to recognize that the text is presenting an idealized truth. It is the same throughout the book. This idealized truth must be understood as such. It’s easy to recognize this when comparing the book to other wisdom texts. For example, read Proverbs straight through, then read Ecclesiastes or Job. All three are wisdom literature, but the three texts offer very different perspectives on the world. In Job, the righteous man loses everything and suffers despite being blameless. In fact, Job’s friends seem to reflect a position that might be supported by the book of Proverbs: If bad things are happening to you, you must have acted wickedly. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon declares some hard realities that seem to stand at odds with the more idealized book of Proverbs. There seems to be a contradiction between the books. However, this contradiction is pressing only if we rigidly look at the proverbs as absolute statements of truth or rules for the universe, instead of recognizing that ideals are being presented. To this end, it is important to recognize that this is an idealized version of women, a target to aspire to. It is not a list of hard and fast rules for wives. Rather, it is an ideal.

Further, the passage itself is Hebrew poem, written with a structure that gives hints as to what the main point is. For starters, each line of the text begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which points to the completeness of the truth being presented. Acrostics could also be used to aid in memorization. This is important because the book is intended to be instructional material for young men. Easy memorization would be a desirable feature. In addition, the poem itself has a Chiastic structure. This is when the first and last line parallel each other, the second and second to last line parallel each other, and so forth. The middle line of the poem, which has no parallel, is the major point being made. In this case verse 23 is the center of the poem:Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land. Essentially, the poem culminates in the instruction that a man with a good wife will be lauded publicly. A modern equivalent would be: “Behind every successful man stands a strong woman.” This may seem like a back-handed treatment of women, saying that their only purpose is to make their husbands successful, but this isn’t the case because wives aren’t the target audience of this text.

When interpreting scripture, understanding the target audience intended by the author is valuable for understanding the message being presented. In the case of the book of Proverbs, the target audience is young men. Throughout the book, young men are addressed in the instructions. In fact, chapter 31 is advice given to King Lemuel by his mother. In this context, the advice being given to sons in the chapter is essentially that picking a good wife will aid in you becoming the kind of man that folks esteem highly. This is hardly unique in the text. 25:24 warns: Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife. What sort of wife should you seek? One that you don’t fight with constantly, or you’ll hit a point where you’d rather sleep on the roof than with her. Chapter 5 is loaded with advice for young men regarding loose sexual morals. Young men are instructed to avoid such behavior and keep their sexuality confined to the relationship with their wives. In this light, the passage fits the larger context of the book’s tendency to offer advice to young men about ideal truths. This is most evident in verse 30: Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Young men tend to gravitate to a pretty face when selecting a wife, while ignoring more important qualities, like character. The advice being offered is heavily oriented toward young men’s inclinations. Again, the audience is important because it reveals a truth that is often ignored by those who attempt to interpret the text in terms of gender roles: chapter 31 is never intended to be used as an instruction manual for wives. It is not a checklist for being the ideal wife. Rather, it is advice for sons to look for certain qualities in their wives if they want to be successful and well thought of. That having been said, there are truths that can be gleaned and applied for wives, but more on that later.

1f63a8228ad74caec641eaecef106871Understanding the historic context is also important for getting a solid grip on the meaning of the passage. The advice being offered isn’t being given in a culture where people typically married for love. Marriage was generally a very utilitarian institution. Wives were selected based on all sorts of considerations, most of them pragmatic. The poem is literally about choosing a wife according to high character standards. This choosing was more akin to shopping than our culture tends to immediately recognize.

In the next installment, we’ll look at the most important background issue: How to interpret what King Lemuel’s mom was saying. Is it symbolic of something else? Is it a guide for being a perfect housewife? Is it a call to return to the 50s? Or is it something better that all believers can take hold of with joy?
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Learning About God from a Cranky Baby at 2 AM

It’s 2 AM and I am sitting up with a sick baby. I would much rather be sleeping, but my poor 15-month old has a cold and was fussing. So, I hopped out of bed, fed him, gave him medicine, and am now holding my son until he dozes off. I would rather be sleeping, but I find myself subject to a higher law. I love my boy more than Isick titus love sleep. Perhaps the biggest blessing I have experienced as a parent is the opportunity to see another human being in a similar light to how God sees humanity. As I sit with my cranky child, the verse that keeps running through my head is from Psalm 8.

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained; What is man that You take thought of him, And the son of man that You care for him? Yet You have made him a little lower than God, And You crown him with glory and majesty!

Psalm 8:3–5

It’s important to understand that humanity is like one huge collection of sick and cranky children. We are infected with an inclination to rebel against out Creator. At the core of our beings, we are sick, broken, and often hurting as a result. God loves us so immensely that He sent His only begotten Son to take our punishment for us on the cross. We are forgiven because He suffered our deserved punishment. Through this forgiveness, we are adopted as sons of God. Even after being forgiven God, still brings us through the slow process of spiritual healing, though we often fight Him every step of the way. God does this out of the boundless and perfect love of an eternal Father toward his creation. The parental love we witness and experience is a shadow of His perfect love. It is a blessing to experience and understand the Father’s perspective, even if it’s only a pale shadow.

I would suggest that this is a perspective that all creatures are capable of understanding at least in part. All people have parents. Through our relationships with them, we experience the same shadow of His love for us. Even if we do not have a good relationship with our parents, we experience a deep need and yearning for parental affection. This need is built in, and through, our thirst we can understand the magnitude of God’s love for us.

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Fighting in the Fellowship

In the closing chapter of his letter to the Philippians, Paul takes the time to address a brewing church fight. Throughout the letter, he seems to touch on the problems that were slowly boiling in the church, while addressing other matters ranging from his experience in prison to dealing with persecution. In the closingfighting remarks of his letter, the apostle bluntly asks for Euodia and Syntyche to live in harmony. Apparently, these women had some sort of interpersonal conflict that had been ongoing and created enough trouble that Paul addresses it directly in his letter. It is important to note that Paul isn’t correcting some evil behavior one or the other is engaging in. Rather, it seems that they just couldn’t seem to get along with each other. Though it seems frivolous, this is an issue that stands at the heart of the most church fights I have encountered in my career. Seldom do modern believers come into conflict with each other over theological matters. Rather, the modern church often fights over issues of personal preference and interpersonal conflict. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes fights are over weighty theological issues, though at times theological issues act as a smokescreen to cover more petty reasons for church schism and disharmony in the body. The same holds true of many other relationships believers find themselves participating in.

Paul’s address of the conflict between the two women is no isolated request. It is part of a larger trend in his work, urging believers to seek harmony and unity, even encouraging grace over theological differences in non-essential matters. This is an issue of significant importance to Paul. So much so that he doesn’t simply give an isolated instruction. Instead, he follows up the direction that they learn to live in harmony by offering a handful of practical suggestions. These suggestions include the use of a mediator of sorts, prayer, etc. One particularly interesting direction is found in Philippians 4:8 “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” This is not just a direction to think positively. It is an instruction regarding the sorts of things we focus on. Most of us have encountered people who just rub them the wrong way. Irritation and friction are common whenever people are expected to interact with eachSermon Link other. One foolproof way to make it worse is to spend time ruminating over perceived wrongs and slights. This time spent replaying or just thinking about things that have been said or done by others often results in more anger and irritation. It’s a little like adding fuel to a fire to keep it alive. In my time as a minister, I have talked to countless people who have kept a resentment alive for years by simply spending time thinking through past wrongs. I have never met anyone who was happier or better off for spending time and energy keeping a resentment hot. Instead, it usually results in bitterness and further disharmony. Paul’s direction to focus on whatever is honorable, good, etc. involves building our thought life around things that will produce good fruit and move us toward the sort of righteousness that God intended us to exude and the kind of harmonious relationship he desires for his children. The practice of training our thoughts on praiseworthy matters is a mental discipline that can quickly contribute to ending fights in our marriages, families, churches, and community. It is easier to forgive, overlook, and get along with someone if you don’t spend huge amounts of mental and emotional energy keeping the fires of animosity burning hot. Grace is easier to offer if we keep no record of wrongs.  This is not an instant occurrence in our lives.It is much harder to forgive a wound we keep fresh by picking at the scab.There is a natural tendency in people to remember wrongs and develop resentments. Keeping our thought life focused on honorable and good things takes effort and intentionality. It needs to be worked at every day. Further, in a believer’s life it is accomplished through the intervention of the Spirit, in response to prayer. As we grow spiritually, we learn to forgive and focus on those things that Paul listed. Conversely, if we fail to discipline our thought lives, we will not mature spiritually. Resentments will always hinder intimacy with God.

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Responding to Folks Who Mistreat You

Perhaps the hardest bit of advice I ever received from a mentor was that I needed to pray more. Normally, being told that you need to pray shouldn’t be an overly difficult suggestion, but this was related to a couple of guys I was working with at the time, who were creating significant difficulty for me. They were making my work harder and undermining me with my supervisor. During the several months I was working with these two individuals, I spent hours every evening fuming and dreaded going to work in the morning. After several months of misery, I approached my mentor and asked him what I could do to deal prayerwith the problem. His response made me angry. He asked me how praying for them was going, also reminding me that Jesus directs his followers to pray for their enemies. I didn’t argue, because I knew I was stuck. This began a process of prayer that changed my life. It was hard to pray for the men in question, largely because I didn’t want to do it. The idea of praying for these guys who had made me miserable for months scalded me. It offended me through and through. Praying for my enemies, and as dramatic as it sounds, they were my enemies, was difficult at first. As time progressed, it became increasingly easier and I learned several important lessons. 

First, I learned that praying for folks that I disliked had a profound effect on me. I increasingly learned to love the folks who mistreated me. My resentments slowly ebbed away. I began to rejoice when God brought blessing into their lives. Ultimately, prayer accomplished something amazing in me, it changed my heart. Through prayer, I became more like Jesus, a gain that makes all of the discomfort more than worthwhile.

The second major lesson I learned happened in the months and years that followed. One of the guys I was praying for received a huge blessing in his life that resulted in his moving to another job. I celebrated an answer to prayer in the form of God blessing him and also in his departure. The other guy I was praying for changed slowly over time and eventually became a very different person. The changes God made in his heart were evident and a reason for celebration. Prayer changes things. In this case, it changed the guys I was praying for. This is important because God is capable of accomplishing great things in our world.

Sermon LinkA final lesson I learned from praying for my enemies happened years later, when I began praying for another fellow I found myself in conflict with. During my first sit down to pray for him, I was suddenly convicted of the various actions I had taken in response to the unpleasantness I was encountering. A simple question came to mind: Is he seeing Jesus in my responses? I will admit that I knew I hadn’t been turning the other cheek or walking the extra mile. I didn’t want to. I wanted to exact my pound of flesh. I began to employ Christ’s other teachings for dealing with my enemy and my relationship with the individual changed. In fact, within a short period I had become friends with him. The product of prayer in this case was conviction of my own sins. That conviction resulted in new action that resulted in a change in the situation. Through prayer, God brought to light my own failure to imitate Christ in my reactions to mistreatment. 

At the most basic level, the direction to pray for our enemies is one that is prominent in the teachings of Christ. This is the single best reason for doing it. I can testify as to the various benefits that have resulted from my prayer experiences, but the reason we ought to do it is because Jesus commands it. If He is Lord in our lives, we must do it. Fortunately, it is a teaching that, though counterintuitive, has some clear benefits to believers. 

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Fellowship Like a Punch in the Face

My first ministry job was as a youth pastor. When I started, the church had over 200 members and was growing. 9 years and 5 church fights later, we left a congregation of 20, swearing that we would never work in a church again. During my tenure, I had seen folks act poorly, gossip, mistreat each other (and me), and all manner of other unpleasantness. When I left the church, I took a job as a chaplain at a mental health facility for children with emotional disorders. It was volatile, frequently violent, and a breath of fresh air. I used to joke that evechurch fightn though the kids sometimes tried to punch you, at least they were attacking you out in the open and to your face. It took my wife and I years to decide to agree to take on ministry employment in a church again. There is a terrible truth about churches that has to be faced by anyone who is (or was) ever a part of one. The people who are meant to become like Jesus through their lives together in the church community, often bear little resemblance to Jesus or what He taught. Over the years, I have spoken with and visited with all sorts of folks who have shared tough stories, ones that I can relate to all too well. Folks were burned by people that were supposed to love and support them. It’s a tragedy that such experiences are so common. While talking with a friend earlier this afternoon, I realized how blessed I was to have been surrounded and supported by some awesome believers who helped my wife and I find rest and healing after a tumultuous time in our lives and relationship with God. The basic lessons and realizations we came to were powerful and important.

One of the major lessoverly_manly_manons I learned was from the Apostle Paul. While studying the second letter to Corinth, I realized that Paul had come to visit the church there and been humiliated and run out of town. A group of preachers, who were more concerned with making money than preaching the gospel, had made a fool of Paul in a debate. Paul then sent Titus to salvage his relationship with the church. He was eventually reconciled with them and the false teachers run off. The thing that’s worth observing here is that Paul was stabbed in the back, mocked, and mistreated by folks who were supposed to be his brothers in Christ. His response was stern, but loving. He did not back down off of the truth, but throughout the whole ordeal he pointed to Jesus as the truth. He did not want payback. He wanted the church to be reconciled. Ultimately, he was just following the example of Christ, who reinstated Peter after he denied even knowing Christ. The lesson to be learned here isn’t that we should jump back into the mess after walking away from those who abused us. Rather, it is a model of forgiveness and grace. It is very easy to fall into bitterness after we are hurt. It is easy to attack and judge. In the end, we need to forgive in order to heal. Nothing keeps a wound fresh more effectively than picking at it forever. I do not believe that Paul simply forget when individuals proved themselves to be untrustworthy. Rather, I’d suggest that he acted “as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove.” Love and grace need to rule our attitude and decisions, particularly when dealing with fellow believers. 

Another vital lesson I learned was that not every Christian is the same. In fact, not every member of any denomination, sect, or movement is the same. While one church handled us roughly, the next church we attended was supportive and loving. We watched our senior pastor being mistreated in one setting, but have experienced significant appreciation and support in our current ministry situation. It is easy to resort to this: all Christians are the same. Or to insert any of the following groups into that sentence: all pastors, all Presbyterians, all Baptists, all men, all elders, all Calvinists, etc. The truth is that it’s just not true. The people that brought hurt into your life are not the same people as all the other members of the larger group. It is easy to blame everyone for the actions of a few, and it can be quite comforting. It’s comforting to have someone to aim your anger at. It’s easy to transfer hurt feelings to everyone. However, as comforting as it is, aiming hurt at others doesn’t produce healing. It is a false comfort, like drinking salt water to quench your thirst. You can drink as much as you like, it’ll only make you thirstier. 

A final lesson I learned in the process of overcoming the hurt that I experienced was regarding the importance of moving on. For my wife and I, it was easy to get mired in remembering some of the particularly ugly behaviors we encountered. I personally spent a lot of time living in response to various actions and things that had been said to me. It’s easy to get stuck. I have met people who walked away from church for life over the actions of a few individuals. I have met those who abandoned their faith in response to un-Christlike Christians. I have met all sorts of people who have let the root of bitterness take hold in their souls and simply live to attack, bite, fight, and hurt because they have hurt that they cannot help but share. Getting stuck in a response to hurt inflicted upon you is simply allowing the people who hurt you to control your life. Whether it’s spending forever ignoring God or trying to take a pound of flesh from someone, anyone. Overcoming this sort of thing once it is entrenched in your life begins with a conscious effort to choose a different response to our past. This isn’t easy, but it is necessary in order to find healing and become whole again.

James’ epistle features a terrific line: 

This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.

James 1:19-20

As we evaluate our response to past ill treatment, it is important that we ask ourselves regularly if the anger we are carrying is bringing God glory. Are we loving the lost and our brothers in Christ? Are we acting in a way that draws others closer to Christ? Is our anger a product of resentment and bitterness? Do we love the least lovable people we encounter? If we find ourselves answering any of these questions in a way that indicates we are not glorifying God, even in the most painful parts of our lives, then we must heal and overcome. James offers an interesting bit of advice for accomplishing this. He calls us to pray for wisdom, which is applied knowledge. This is a difficult act of submission, but is necessary for spiritual growth to take place in the lives of those who have been broken by the careless acts of misguided believers. 

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What You See When You Look in the Mirror

A friend of mine, who will likely be a regular contributor, emailed me this essay. I was pretty impressed by it and it relates well to the current sermon series (and this week’s sermon in particular), so I decided to add it. He has asked to remain anonymous. I am planning on respecting that request.– Erik

Through Alcoholics Anonymous, God has taught me some difficult lessons that I desperately needed to learn. One of the most important happemirror.image_ned without me realizing it. I started out as a balled up fist of anger, bitterness, and pain. In the name of my addiction, I had hurt those around me and acted despicably. Over time, I got healthier. Then one day I was sitting in a meeting listening to another person talk. I don’t even remember what they were talking about, but I remember hearing them say words that I had said to myself on many occasions. I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was as if I was listening to myself talk about my own addiction. Over the years, I have listened to others in recovery talk about the destruction they brought to those around them, stealing, degrading themselves, and almost every other conceivable sin. I don’t feel sickened by their sins. I feel empathy and I see myself. I hear my own thoughts. I see my own loneliness. I hear the lies I tell myself. Sometimes that’s in the past and other times its today. It is difficult to look at sometimes, but seeing my own sickness in the mirror that is others who are struggling for freedom from the slavery of addiction reminds me of what I am capable of. Remembering where I came from helps keep me free. A friend of mine often tells me that the darker the darkness of the world, the brighter the light of the cross of Jesus. 

The 12th step is spending the rest of your life helping others get out of the living hell of addiction. One of the best reasons I’ve found for doing this, beyond helping other addicts and serving God, is that the more time I spend with addicts the more I am able to see the junk I don’t want to go back to. I need to remember my powerlessness and flee to His strength. This is not to say that I am judging them. Rather, all I ever see is myself, like in a mirror. Perhaps the biggest blessings that came from finding “the bottom”, and I don’t say this lightly because it wasn’t pleasant, is that it becomes difficult to judge others for their sins. It’s hard to be the pharisee bragging before God and pointing to the tax collector for contrast, when you were the guy the tax collector probably looked down on. Looking in the mirror reminds me that I can always go back if I stop leaning on God to keep me out of sin. Any believer that is blessed enough to come to grips with the depth of their own crumminess has a treasure beyond words. I see it in Paul when he talks about himself being the least of apostles, literally referring to himself as a spiritual abortion. This is a blessing that allows you to brag about God’s greatness because you know how wicked you are. Every time you encounter those who don’t know Christ and are still mired in their sin, you get a chance to see your own sin and reflect on the marvel that is grace. 

The other bit of good news that comes to bear after realizing that your fellow man acts as a mirror to help keep you clean, is that God provides an even better mirror to gaze into. In the book of James, we are told that believers are to look into The Word, like gazing into a mirror. Afterward, we are to change based on the reflection we see. For the sinner who recognizes the amazingness of grace, The Word provides an image of what we ought to look like. In the person of Christ, we see perfect sacrificial love, obedience unto death, holiness in the midst of terrible challenges, and our model for all attitudes and behaviors. We are directed by Paul to imitate Christ in our pursuit of holiness. The mirror that The Word provides shows us what we can be as the Spirit sanctifies us. The danger in this is seen when we gaze into the mirror without stark and painful awareness of our sin. We can be tempted to see ourselves in the good parts and our neighbor in the bad. It is easy to become the pharisee proclaiming the goodness of our work and judging the tax collector. Usually, we have such a large plank in our eye at this point that we cannot see any different. None is so blind as those who refuse to see. I have lived there. It is awful believing that your own goodness will carry you, needing to rage at anyone who defies this opinion. In Christ, I was freed. 

When we look at the lost and feel only contempt, failing to see our own fallen selves and refusing to see the amazing depth of the well that is God’s grace for sinners, we stand in the temple and boast that we are better than sinners. The scripture is our mirror. It is never our club to beat others with. 

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