I Haven’t Arrived

The repetition of the word “continually” in Psalm 71 reminds me that on this side of heaven I won’t be able to say that I’ve conquered sin or arrived at a point of complete spiritual maturity. Instead I will need to “continually come” (vs 3) to God as my “rock of refuge” and “hope continually” (vs 14) in the help and deliverance of my Savior, so that my praise of Him would be continual as well (vs 6).

I’m thankful that the psalmist uses that word, because my human tendency is to equate understanding with change or conviction with transformation…but they are not the same. Just because I have gained some insight or understanding of a particular struggle or sin does not mean that my heart has changed in that area. Conviction alone does not produce transformation. I have not arrived.

Rather, I need to be humble enough to recognize that since my struggle with sin is continual, so also my need for deliverance and help from God is continual. I must come continually, hope continually, and praise continually. There is no other way. Therefore habits of prayer and habits of rehearsing the Gospel and habits of worship are vitally needed to open my heart continuously to God’s ongoing work of transformation. Moment-by-moment communion with God in prayer is a way to come continually to Him. Regularly rehearsing the Gospel is a way to hope continually in Him. And listening to or singing songs of worship is a way to focus my praise continually on Him.

 

Sin-Killing Habits: #3

Most often in our lives, sin does not suddenly clobber us over the head with a major failure, but rather it creeps in by one little choice at a time. So when the “big” sin happens, it really is not surprising because there have been so many “little” sins leading up to it.

The same is true when it comes to killing sin. Most often, a sin is not suddenly and emphatically eliminated from our lives with one major decision or prayer or commitment. Instead, it gradually loses power over us with each little decision to fight against it. So the habits we need to develop to war against sin are the daily little things that help us move away from sin and toward Christ in the 1001 everyday moments of our lives. Here’s another one of those sin-killing habits to develop: Set up guardrails.

Sin may be pleasurable for the moment, but the consequences of sin are always dire. Eternity in hell apart from God for those who reject Christ is not the only dire consequence of sin–Christians also experience devastating results from sin, even though that sin is forgiven by Christ’s sacrifice. Therefore setting up guardrails to keep ourselves away from the danger of sin is a wise habit to form.

P4102360-1050x788If you are hiking the narrow rock fin called Angel’s Landing at Zion National Park, and there are 1000-foot sheer cliffs on both sides of the path, you would be wise to stay on the path rather than seeing how close to the edge you can get without falling off. Likewise, if you don’t want to experience the deadly consequences of sin, then rather than just assuming you’ll never go there, put guardrails in place to keep you as far away from the sin as possible.

So if you are not yet married and you want to save the beauty and wonder of sex for the context for which God designed it, then don’t ask “How far can I go with my girlfriend without sinning?” Instead ask “What will help us keep this God-designed good gift of sex in its proper context?” And then construct a guardrail like deciding not to kiss each other until your wedding day, or to not say “I love you” until you get engaged.

Or if you struggle with an addiction of any kind, you know it doesn’t work to just say “I’m not going to give in to that again.” But instead set a guardrail that keeps you away from the places or situations where you are most tempted to give in to that addiction:

  • Make it a rule to only access the internet in a room where other people can see what you’re doing, or set up filters and password parameters that require a trusted friend or spouse to grant access to certain places.
  • Agree to regularly show your credit card statements to a trusted friend or financial advisor.
  • Make yourself a shopping list for the grocery store rather than wandering through it, and stay away from the alcohol aisle or the candy aisle (or in my case, the ice cream aisle).
  • Give someone else the TV remote and ask them to turn it off after an agreed upon time. Or get rid of cable entirely, and learn a new hobby instead.

Some might argue that “rules” like the above are just legalistic, and that we should enjoy our freedom in Christ. But it is not legalism to put up guardrails that make you stick to the straight and narrow path–it is wisdom. And it is not freedom that moves you off the path and onto the edge of the cliff–it is foolishness.

[For a much more detailed teaching on this subject of guardrails, check out Pastor Andy Stanley’s series called Guardrails here.]

 

The Gift of Humble Listening

A few days ago, I received a valuable gift. It was not anything with monetary value. Nor was it a tangible possession. But it was tremendously valuable to me. It was the gift of truly and humbly listening to my need.

As a father of an adopted special-needs daughter, I sometimes feel very alone. Some people understand the struggles associated with foreign adoption. Some people can relate to the difficulties in parenting a child with Down Syndrome. Fewer understand the different struggles associated with adopting an older child. And fewer still understand the complexities of trying to care for a child that fits all of these categories together.

Because these are struggles that few can easily understand or relate to, people around me tend to either avoid the topic or skim the surface. And because I know that they can’t relate, I usually don’t share very deeply. But the net result of that is a sense of being alone in the struggles.

So the other day, when a friend took the time not only to ask me how things were going, but then to really listen, that was a tremendous gift. It was a gift that cost her something, because it wasn’t just a 20-second conversation. But what was even more valuable in that gift that she gave was the humility to not assume she knew the answer to my troubles. Others will listen briefly, and acknowledge that it must be hard, and then say something to the effect of “Have you tried ____ ?” or “Maybe ____ would help.” I know that when people offer advice or assistance, it is done with a heart that truly cares and desires to help, but sometimes that quickness to “find a solution” actually ends up making me feel even less understood.

For me, and I’m sure for many others who are dealing with suffering or troubles of various kinds, there is not an immediate solution to be found. In fact, there may never be a “solution” at all. And so what I long for is for someone to acknowledge that it is hard, and then stop there. Rather than feeling compelled to offer a solution, let the solution be simply to acknowledge that there may not be a solution. That is what it means to listen humbly. And humble listening is a tremendous gift.

Hope Unshaken

My hope for my country is not grounded in the political process or in the promises of particular candidates but in the sovereignty and graciousness of my God. But in this election year it is hard not to give way to cynicism and frustration when considering the candidates before us, and I was finding myself agreeing with this columnist whose conviction will not allow him to vote for either presidential candidate. I resonated with his sarcastic comment about Trump: “I waver between believing that his defeat would be the worst thing to happen to our country and believing that his victory would be.”

However I ran across another article, this one by Wayne Grudem, a man I greatly respect as a wise and Godly theologian, whose conclusion was very different…and quite compelling. His stated purpose is this:

I am writing this article because I doubt that many “I can’t vote for Trump” Christians have understood what an entirely different nation would result from Hillary Clinton as president, or have analyzed in detail how different a Trump presidency would be. In what follows, I will compare the results we could expect from a Clinton presidency with what we could expect from a Trump presidency.

He acknowledges many flaws in Trump’s character and policy, yet believes that “he will do more good for the nation than his opponent,” therefore he concludes that voting for Trump is not a morally evil choice but in fact is the “morally right thing to do.”

The overriding question that Grudem bases his analysis on is “Which vote is most likely to bring the best results for the nation?” May God grant each of us much wisdom in wrestling with that question and then voting accordingly, with our hope unshaken regardless of the outcome.

 

The Foundational Value of Retreat

IMG_0754In Dallas Willard’s explanation of a “Curriculum for Christlikeness” (in The Divine Conspiracy), he says that “a small number of [spiritual disciplines] are absolutely central to spiritual growth,” and those disciplines “form a part of the foundation of our whole-life plan for growth as apprentices of Jesus.” Those foundational, central disciplines–according to Willard–are solitude and silence (disciplines of abstinence), and study and worship (disciplines of engagement). 

If I had to narrow Willard’s list of four down to a single discipline that is most foundational for our growth in Godliness in this current time and culture, I would say that spiritual retreat is that foundational discipline. In one sense, a retreat is not necessarily a separate discipline, but a practical “container” that holds several disciplines together. But it is for that very reason that I see retreats as such a vital practice–retreats are a practical way in which we create space for the practice of other vital disciplines, especially Willard’s quartet of solitude, silence, study, and worship.

A retreat by definition is a significant chunk of time away from the normal patterns of our life, for a specific purpose. A spiritual retreat simply means that the specific purpose for which we are spending unhurried time away is to grow in Godliness. More and more I am finding–both in my own life and growth as well as in my shepherding of others as a father and pastor–that apart from some intentional effort to retreat from the normal pace and pattern of life, those foundational disciplines that Willard speaks of will be pushed aside as merely good ideas that we will get to someday if we have more time. But when we do make the effort to retreat, even for half a day, and in that retreat we experience silence and solitude that leads to rich study and worship, we are often amazed at what God does in us through that time.

 

Sin-Killing Habits: #2

This side of heaven, though God is sanctifying the hearts of His children day by day, we do not have a magic cure to get us out of the daily struggle with our own sin. So what habits can we develop to kill that sin in our hearts and lives?

First, we must recognize the deadly seriousness of our sin and declare war on it. The second habit to develop is this: Flee AND Pursue.

In I Timothy 6:11, the apostle Paul tells the young pastor Timothy to “flee these things,” namely the “love of money” (vs. 10) and discontentment (vv. 7-8). He is to flee from sin. Other places in Scripture tell us the same: “Flee the evil desires of youth” (II Tim 2:22), “Flee from sexual immorality” (I Cor 6:18), and “Flee from idolatry” (I Cor 10:14). Clearly we are to run away from sin. That’s the obvious part–we know that.

But Paul doesn’t stop with that. Right after he tells Timothy to flee from those sins, he also tells him to “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” I think there’s an important principle here: fleeing from sin is not enough on its own to kill indwelling sin. Rather, killing sin requires an active pursuit of righteousness.

We see this principle in athletics all the time. In a football game, if a running back has the ball, his objective is not merely to evade the tacklers, but to cross the goal line. If he were simply trying to evade tacklers, his focus would be behind him and he might run in any direction. But he is not only fleeing from the tacklers, he is pursuing the goal line because his objective is to score. Thus his focus is primarily on what’s in front of him between him and the goal line.

In a similar way, a runner in a 100m dash slows herself down if she is turning her head to look behind her at how close her competitors are–instead she must focus fully on the finish line ahead. This is the imagery Paul uses in Philippians 3:13-14 when he says “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

This is a key strategy for fighting sin. With many sins–sins of lust especially–the more I think about how to overcome the sin or avoid the sin, the greater the hold that sin has on me, simply because I am thinking about it. There is a place for considering the ugliness of particular sins and for strategizing how to defeat them, but I should not linger in that process, but move quickly on to a pursuit of righteousness. Especially when temptation comes, it hardly ever works to say to myself “I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it” because in that my mind is focused behind me on the sin I’m trying to flee from. But if instead, by the mercy of God, I’m able to turn my mind to pursue God rather than thinking about the sin, I may be more likely to avoid that temptation.

What does it look like to pursue righteousness? It may mean turning on some worship music and singing along. It may mean turning to Scripture to study a passage. It may mean calling a friend to hang out or pray together. It may mean starting work on a service project. It may even mean working out at the gym or reading a book or some other seemingly “unspiritual” activity, simply because that activity will help to turn your mind and your affections away from the temptation to sin.

So when sin comes your way, by all means, flee! But as you are fleeing from that sin, turn your focus away from the sin and put it on the One whom you are pursuing. Let your mind and your heart be captivated by His beauty and His glory, that your affections for Him would drive you further and further from the sin that so easily entangles you.

The True Battle

If you are in any way connected with people with special needs, and especially if you are a parent of someone with special needs, I highly recommend a book that was recently published called The Life We Never Expected. This is written by a pastor and his wife, Andrew and Rachel Wilson, in response to the onset of a regressive autism in both of their young children. Though the particular special needs of my daughter are not the same as those of the Wilson’s, I resonated deeply with their story and struggle, and appreciated both their raw honesty and their determined hopefulness.

In one of the early chapters, Rachel writes about fake battles versus the true battle. The fake battles, she says, are all the urgent tasks and struggles that feel vital but are actually peripheral–all the phone calls and researching and filling out applications and pursuing government services that inevitably come into play in seeking to care for a child with special needs. All of those battles, she says,

can distract me from the true battle, which, more often than not, is not fought that way. Frequently, the weapons of the true battle include silence, prayer, thought, clinging onto a recently read Scripture passage with my fingernails, singing through gritted teeth, reading a prewritten prayer out loud, reaching for Jesus through the mist of confusion or unanswered prayer, stilling myself in his presence, and remembering that he is good and faithful and kind…. I love my kids most not by loving them the most but by first loving God. As soon as I take my eyes off him and my attitude falters and I begin to believe that I alone must push for them and control their destinies, the unbearable weight of playing God soon becomes apparent.

I need to be reminded (often!) that it is not up to me to make change happen in my daughter. And I need to be reminded that I can still be loving God even when I’m coming to Him out of exhausted determination rather than joyful devotion. The true battle is to find my joy and hope in God, rather than seeking to find it in therapies and medication and government aid and heroic parenting.