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Quote: Reward in Good Character

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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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Pink On Family and National Morality

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I came across this quote from Arthur Pink today and thought it was worth sharing, particularly in light of the alarmist things I encounter in my social media feeds on a daily basis lately. It’s easy to find folks to blame for the problems in our nation. Folks post their outrage on social media, flock to politicians peddling easy answers, demand laws that will straighten up the world we live in, and pine for God to set things right. The problem with these solutions is that they are top-down fixes to a bottom-up problem. Decline and decay start in our own homes and churches. We must address our own messes before looking to those of others. In the 2 millennia since its birth, Christianity has changed the world, not through legislation and power, but through discipleship and devotion to the cause of Jesus. Fathers, follow Jesus and grow spiritually. Then, spend time with your families, loving and teaching them who Jesus is and how to follow Him. Devote yourself to your God, your marriage, your family, and your church (in that order). If you want this country to change, start with yourselves. Through prayer and discipleship, Jesus’ following grew to fill the world. It will only happen again through the same efforts.

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7 ways Husbands Mess Up the Loving Things They Do For Their Wives


I love my wife. I want her to love me and think I am a great husband. Heck, I want to be the kind of husband that makes my wife feel loved, appreciated, and treasured. Further, I want her to look to me as a source of comfort, assurance, and joy. Achieving this means courting her throughout our marriage. Sitting around and wanting our marriage to grow stronger without putting forth effort is unrealistic. I also want to be faithful to God’s command that I love my wife like Jesus loved the church. This means serving her. Over and over Jesus taught that love is demonstrated through service. Over the course of 18 years of marriage, I have learned through trial and error (lots and lots of error) that simply doing things for her is a start, but it is not everything. There are all sorts of things I, and lots of husbands, do to mess up the good things we do for them. We men can be thick-headed in regards to relationships and often act stupidly in ways that mess up what we are trying to achieve. Figuring out the big pitfalls and avoiding them is a huge part of courting our wives. Here are a few I have done or have observed in others.

  • We remind her that we did them. This is pretty simple. Your wife probably noticed what you’ve done. If you cleaned the house, she noticed. If you did laundry, she noticed. If you do dishes, wash the dog, wash the car, play with the kids, do yard work, write love notes, buy flowers, or anything else… she probably noticed. If she didn’t, she isn’t that concerned about it or is too tired or busy to notice right now. Eventually, she will. The more you talk about the good things you do, the less impressed she is by your effort. No one is that impressed by folks who have to blow their own horn. Serve your wife and let her notice on her own. She will. You not playing it up for points will make your acts more meaningful.
  • img_0717We think it’s a bigger favor than it actually is. There are some things we do that seem like a big deal to us. These are things that she sees as something we should have been doing all along or something that isn’t that important to her. It makes more sense to understand what she is impressed by, wants you to do, or would be meaningful to her, and then do those things. It’s easy to figure out what to do. Just watching what she reacts to or just asking her will tell you most of what you need to know. Also, a single nice act is one thing and will likely be something she appreciates. However, a real impact can be made by putting effort into doing things for her regularly. There is a cumulative effect. A thousand small acts of service, performed over the course of months, will mean more than one huge one standing on its own.
  • We do things she doesn’t want us to do. My wife doesn’t like surprises and isn’t moved by gifts. I spent years planning huge, elaborate surprises and giving her gifts. Neither impressed her much. I thought I was doing all sorts of things to court her, but I hadn’t bothered to learn that she loves acts of service and words of affirmation. Those sorts of things mean a lot more to her. I did what I liked, not what she liked. The point is to meet her needs.
  • We expect sex in exchange. Guys, admit it. We sometimes do things for our wives because we want sex. We clean, serve, get flowers, etc. because we want sex. The problem is that if your loving gesture has an ulterior motive, she will see it as a manipulation. All your good will dissolve the moment she knows you are doing things for you, not for her. Your loving acts need to be about her. They need to be done because you love her. She is smart. She knows. In addition, if you’ve been doing your loving gestures with the expectation of sex as payment, there is a cumulative effect. You build mistrust. You may have to do better for a while before she believes that you are doing them because you love her.
  • We play martyr. If you do things for her and play up the hardship on you or your sacrifice in an effort to build additional good will, it backfires. Do things because you love her, show strength in the effort, don’t make a big deal about it, and be clear that you are doing what you are doing because you love her. In the end, this the reason we court our wives: we love them. That’s what makes acts of service so powerful.
  • img_0715We do it half-heartedly. Do the things you do for her as best you can do them. If you can, do them without her asking. Definitely do them without her having to nag you. Your effort and you thinking about her is what makes your actions meaningful. Don’t do a bad job and don’t procrastinate.
  • You fight with her. Don’t fight with her! If she comments on something you missed when you were cleaning or something you did wrong, don’t lash out. If she doesn’t acknowledge what you did immediately or show as much appreciation as you expect, don’t lash out. I know it’s easy to get frustrated or feel hurt or feel unappreciated. Don’t fight with her about it. Doing something for her and following it up with anger or hurtful words will do far more harm than good. Take a deep breath, take a walk, think it through, don’t approach her with unrealistic expectations, whatever it takes, don’t pick a fight.
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The 10 Most Important Things to Do When Taking Your Kids Camping

img_1457Last year, I read Theodore Rex, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. Amongst the many things that stood out to me in the life of that great man was that he took his children camping almost every night while staying at his vacation home. This was a man who was the leader of the free world, a world class intellectual, and a war hero. He was not too busy or too important to sleep under the stars with his children. I am willing to wager that for all the great things that Teddy was, his kids valued that time spent with him more than anything else. As dads, we often get distracted by our work, our hobbies, and our comforts; all to the detriment of the time we spend with our kids. Putting forth the effort to create special times with them is important. It is when the real impact of our parenting will blossom. Camping is a unique way to do this, because it takes us out of our comfort zone and away from our distraction, forcing us to pay attention to each other. For a child, camping with dad is a great adventure and a privilege. Here are a few of the things I have learned from camping with my kids.

  • You are the most important part of the equation! Last weekend, I had hoped to take the kids camping in the backyard. I’ve been anxiously awaiting my first chance at camping with the kids since January. However, 3 days of heavy rain changed that plan. So, I set up the tent in the living room and we camped indoors. They loved it and I learned something important.
    I am the most important part of the camping experience. I don’t say that to be arrogant. Rather, I realized that the kids, more than anything else, wanted to spend time with me. The prospect of sleeping on the floor with me was pretty exciting. Going to exotic locations, doing crazy things, and planning perfect outdoor experiences are all important, especially as the kids get older, but the single most important component is spending time with dad. That will be the part they remember for the long haul. You don’t have to be an expert outdoorsman to make the experience memorable. You just have to be there.
  • Don’t let the weather stop you. Over the past weekend, rain forced us indoors. I’ve been camping with teenagers
    from work in the past, when it rained for 4 of the 6 days we were in the woods. Instead of enjoying the great outdoors, we played cards in the tent, talked, listened to thunder and wind, learned to build fires in a downpour, read, and had a different brand of fun. The perfect experience isn’t found only when the conditions are perfect. Perfect experiences are had when you enjoy time together, without the everyday noise and distractions of our modern life. This doesn’t mean you should risk your life. Rather, be willing to adapt to the situation. Camping indoors or in a rental cabin is better than doing nothing.
  • IMG_1178Plan time together. The first big camping trip I took my daughter on in the mountains included fishing. She had seen fishing in cartoons and assumed it would be a very different experience. I am confident that she did not love it. She is too impatient. However, she loved sitting in my lap, eating snacks, talking, and reeling in the only fish we managed to catch, which she was terrified of when we finally got it to shore. The time we spent together was the big part. Eventually, I will teach my kids how to pick a campsite, build a fire, cook outdoors, etc. Those activities will be great because it will involve time together. For children, the time you spend focused on them is more valuable than anything else.
  • Step it up in increments. This weekend wasn’t our first experience with living room camping. My children are still young and I recognized that it was necessary to take small steps in the camping experience. Living room camping made it easy to put the kids to bed in their own room if sleeping in the tent proved to be too much for them. Cuddling in the cold of the morning was safer for the first time, knowing that I could take them in from the back yard if it freaked them out too much. Camping at a ranch, within walking distance of a ranch house, is a safe bet if the noises of camping outside of town became too much for them. Increments warmed the kids up to camping in a way that made it easier to experience. This summer I hope to get my daughter out to sleep under the stars.
  • Stay up late to see the stars. One of the biggest blessings of living in Montana is the abundance of beautiful scenery. Perhaps none better than standing under the night sky and seeing the grandeur of God’s creation sprawling before you. My preschool daughter was almost speechless at the sight. On our first camping trip in the mountains, we sat up late (admittedly, watching cartoons) and got out of the tent at 2 AM. The view was breathtaking. Living in a town or city often makes this sort of experience non-existent. If you are going to be out there, take advantage of the opportunity.
  • Eat junk food. There are purists who would disagree with me on this one. However, I am of the opinion that camping should be a special experience. It should be a big treat that they look forward to. Part of how I make this happen is by hitting the junk food aisles at the grocery store and letting the kids pick whatever they want. S’mores are a must, but cookies, chips, candy, etc. are not to be overlooked. Sitting up late, waiting for the sun to set and the stars to come out, and talking is greatly enhanced by the presence of processed junk food. Sharing a bag of Oreos with dad on a camping trip is pure gold. Disclaimer: In bear country, you have to be pretty careful. Have fun, but don’t be stupid.
  • Cook over the fire. Campfire food is amazing. Even if it’s not good by normal standards, a kid cooking their own meal over a real fire is an experience on its own. Teaching a kid to cook their own dinner and marshmallows over an open flame is integral to the camping experience. Plus, it feels like a grown up privilege for them. It’ll make the trip extra special.
  • Talk with your kids. Time spent camping should be special. Sometimes I let the kids watch cartoons, particularly when living room camping. We read comic books, play games, run around, and do all sorts of other things. But, I’d argue that the most important part is talking. You teach your kids how to be adults. Wisdom imparted while camping takes on an extra weight of importance. Don’t waste the opportunity to deepen your relationship through connecting and relating to your children. While you’re camping, the kids will have fewer distractions. Their tv, toys, phones, and every other shining thing that draws their (and your) attention away will be nowhere in sight. Take advantage of it. Talk to each other. This is particularly important when they are young. If you want your kids to talk with you when they are older, teach them to do it early.
  • Don’t forget to have fun. There are so many things to do and worry about that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you are there to have fun. This is particularly the case because men often have trouble shutting off the part of our personality that focuses on work and worry. Your kids want to have fun with you. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself and them. They will only be young once. Don’t miss it.
  • Do it often! Camping is one of those things that they will remember, especially if you do it often. It’s not always easy to get away to the mountains to camp, but the backyard and living room are always there. Being a dad isn’t something you do once every summer. The biggest impact is made by investing a lot of time. Sleeping in a tent isn’t comfortable, but your kids will remember it for the rest of their lives.
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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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The Fatal Component of Addiction is Denial

One of the more difficult to grasp concepts about addiction is denial. denialDenial is the component of addiction that is actually fatal. This seems counterintuitive, because addiction typically features all sorts of destructive patterns and practices that seem to the part of addiction that kills you, but the reality is that what kills the addict is the inability to recognize the severity of the situation.

Denial is a thinking mechanism that enables the addict to effectively lie to themselves. All sorts of terrible things happen to the addict, like health problems, legal consequences, relationships disintegrating, loss of employment, or financial problems. These are often directly connected to the addict’s behaviors. Even highly functional addicts experience problems, but deterioration is inevitable. Because their addiction demands more and more of their attention and energy, they are unable to invest in their social and work obligations. Regardless of how bad things get for the addict, denial prevents them from associating their difficulties with using or to recognize that they have developed a serious problem. It’s not intentional, but rather the product of their illness that keeps them focused on everything except the connection between addiction and their problems. Because of denial, the addict gets sicker and sicker without recognizing it. Eventually, it is the lack of recognition that prevents them from working to stop their addictive patterns and results in their death. Denial is fatal because it keeps the addict from seeking help. They anesthetize themselves against most of the pain of consequences by using and blame the rest on other causes.

Typically, denial is broken when the addict experiences so much pain as a result of their using that they wake up to the problem. This is typically referred to as “hitting the bottom.” Unfortunately, the bottom is usually so bad that it kills the addict. Sometimes an addict will swear they won’t use again after an unpleasant experience and attempt to control their using. This fails and memories of the unpleasant experience are hidden behind the denial mechanism. Typically, these moments of clarity are not all-encompassing enough to really break down denial. The first step of the Alcoholics Anonymous program is acknowledging that life has become unmanageable, that the addict cannot control their behavior and that their addiction is destroying them. This is the level of acknowledgement that is necessary for the addict to begin recovery. They have to recognize that they are really sick. If an addict gets help or joins a group of other addicts, this can often lead to them coming to the realization that they are sick, largely because the recovering addicts can typically connect with other addicts in ways that non-addicts don’t necessarily emulate well. In the early days of AA, members would go to addicts in hospitals and sanitariums and proselytize them into the program. Addicts were able to successfully engage other addicts in ways that others weren’t. They could cut through denial because they understood it from the inside.

There are other ways that denial can be broken. For example, interventions put the consequences and impact of the addict’s behavior in front of them in order to force them to face up to reality. They are told about the effects their addiction is having on their loved ones, which prevents them from avoiding the reality of the situation. Another way for breaking denial is by convincing an addict to start treatment through motivational interviewing or other therapeutic techniques, but ultimately they cannot make progress until their denial is dealt with. Facing the consequences of their actions is an important component of beginning recovery. As long as they are protected from the natural consequences of their actions, they cannot begin to wake up to the severity of the situation.
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When Brush Fires Break Out In the Church

The area of Northern Montana where I reside is largely prairie. Our annual rainfall is measured in inches and the local farms grow wheat and raise cattle. fireatnightDuring the late summer, a persistent Sunday morning prayer request is for no fires and for safety when they do break out. The interesting thing is that it takes very little to start a blaze. The heat from the exhaust of a car parked in tall grass is more than sufficient to light a fire. A thrown cigarette or a lightning strike can destroy hundreds of acres. Dry wheat, chaff, brush, high winds, and farm equipment make for a dangerous combination during the dry season. One of the most impressive things about these fires is the response from the farmers and ranchers. When a fire breaks out in the  hills, the farmers call each other, load into trucks, and put the fire out. The fire department is also called, but with 30 miles of travel to put in before they fight the fire, every set of hands matters. Most farms have water trucks and backpacks for spraying water on fires. There is a perfect model here for the church.

In the third chapter of James, he speaks at length regarding the tongue and the danger that accompanies words that are far too loosely spoken.
Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.  James 3:5-6
I have worked in professional church ministry for over a decade and have watched as gossip, envy, angry talk, and other words started fights that ruined friendships and split fellowships. All it ever was, was a small spark; a few words and the fire was lit. Gossip, boasting, and judgement preceded the forming of  factions and alliances, which led into hostilities and splits. It’s astounding to me the sorts of things folks would say and do in the name of their opinion regarding what was right for the church. Once these fires started, they were extremely difficult to put out. I once met a stranger at work who grew up in a different town than the church I worked for. He told me all about what he heard of my actions in a church fight that had happened years before. A few sparks spread to another field and the fire continued. The tragedy of the whole situation was that believers in Christ got burned. I know folks who walked away from church membership entirely over the shoddy behavior of the folks who decided it was their job to burn the wheat and the tares in the name of their petty issues. (Matthew 13:24-30)

Ideally, the church should resemble the farming community in which I live. When a fire breaks out, instead of running to pour08252013FourAlarm99YeaOldChurchPhiladelphiaFire_001 gas on the blaze, every member should leap into action to put out the fire before the harvest is set ablaze. Friends, family, and neighbors wouldn’t sit around and listen to the newest juicy gossip. Instead, they would recognize the danger of a fire catching and respond by lovingly correcting the behavior and stopping the fire before it spreads. When a fire catches and begins to spread, members of the church community would charge in and make peace, throwing water on the situation. They would respond to the fire alarm with a sense of urgency that is in harmony with the danger that is presented to the body of Christ.

They would respond by working to put out the fire. This does not mean that they will drive the fighters out of the church, but rather they will call those involved to Christlike behavior, love, and to be peacemakers. Believers do not step on each other to create harmony. Rather, they call each other to repentance, speaking the truth in love.

A final component of preventing fires from spreading in the church is for the preacher and teachers to teach members about the dangerjames 3s of speaking too loosely and the sin of gossip. Believers need to be taught about the dangers of loose talk and the sins associated with sowing seeds of dissension in the body.
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Tools In the Marital Toolbox: The Heart Alignment Tool

Years ago, I was replacing the clutch on my car. After removing the old clutch, I went to a high end transmission shop, where the guy at the counter explained that though they had the part, they did not have the alignment tool that normally clutch toolcomes with it. I had never replaced a clutch and had no idea how important the tool was, so I said “no problem” and was on my way. I discovered that it actually was a problem when I attempted to put the engine back into the car with the misaligned clutch. The engine simply would not fit the transmission. I tried several improvised fixes, but had no success. Finally, I pulled off the clutch and went back to the shop, where a different guy was now at the counter. He looked at the clutch and stated firmly that they didn’t sell the alignment tools separately and that the part was not returnable because I had attempted installation. After some arguing and effort, I realized I wasn’t going to make any progress. I then turned to the internet and discover that no one was selling my alignment tool. Finally, after days of working on the problem, I took the engine to the dealer and paid an hour’s worth of labor to a technician, who spent 3 minutes aligning my part. The little plastic alignment tool, that seemed so unimportant at the time, was vital to properly installing my clutch. Without the tool, the engine, which produces power, simply couldn’t connect to the transmission, which transfers power to the tires.

There is a similar problem in many marriages. Both members of the partnership have specific ideas as to how things ought to be, heart alignmentbut struggle with making the ideal version in their head transfer into relationship reality. They want to communicate without arguing, agree on financial decisions, experience perfect harmony in their physical relationship, and find that spark of excitement that was present when they first started dating. The problem arises when the idea as to how marriage ought to be fails to translate into forward and harmonious movement in the relationship. This misalignment is a product of the fallen nature, which inclines us toward self-centeredness. If you take a look at Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthians 13, you will find the antithesis of the sinful inclination of man. It’s natural for people to struggle with making their behavior match their convictions. Paul describes this struggle in Romans 7,

I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.

Our sinful flesh inclines us away from right and toward sin. It’s no coincidence that Paul talks about a perfect version of love in the context of spiritual gifts, because the love he describes is impossible for us to live out. It is a product of the Holy Spirit’s intervention.
One tool in the marital toolbox is similar to the one I was missing when the time arose for me to align my clutch. The great heart alignment tool available to believers is the intervention of the Spirit, aiding us toward Christlike action. As we submit our lives to Christ and learn to obey His teachings, the Holy Spirit produces new attitudes and behavior in our lives. If we simply try to obey a set of standards, apart from new life in Christ, we will find ourselves mired in legalism, which is ultimately impossible to maintain for the long haul. Ultimately, this will produce the same sort of results that my improvised alignment tools produced. The tool that was designed to fit my car is the only one that could successfully line up my engine and transmission.

The misalignment of heart and actions in the marital context is best illustrated by the responses of husbands to Paul’s teaching in Philippians 5:25-27

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.

When reading this passage with men, I find that they often get hung up on talk of wives obeying, which is addressed in the preceding verse. They complain that their wife doesn’t obey them, and they harbor resentment because of it. This is a product of a misalignment of heart with the heart of Christ, specifically because they aren’t looking at the passages that apply to them. They are only looking at what they are owed. Husbands bear the responsibility of loving their wives asclick here tools Christ loved the church. This literally means that husbands should be willing to give everything for their wives and take on the role of servant. He ought to lead his family spiritually, not only in words, but also in action. The job of a husband is to align their attitude and behavior with that of Jesus. When she offends him, he forgives. He is patient, selfless, kind, and forgiving. When things are not as they ought to be, he guides through love and sacrifice. We do not see Christ demanding that He be served. The tool that helps us to align our hearts with his, and then our actions with our heart is the Holy Spirit. Prayer, confession, accountability, devotion to the Word, and obedience is our side of the equation. The Spirit convicts and changes us as we strive toward holiness. Without the Spirit, we simply cannot manage this on our own.

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