God-Given Nervousness

No one that I know enjoys getting nervous. In fact, most people do their best to avoid situations that they know will make them nervous. But I have come to the conclusion that being nervous is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think sometimes it is a God-given thing.

For example, being nervous is one of the biggest reasons so many Christians are reluctant to share the gospel with others. They are not sure they will say the right thing or know all of the answers to questions they may be asked.

Ken Currie wrote the following:

For the time being, it seems the greatest threat to gospel-telling in such a society [as ours] is not that we will be hauled before the city council, beaten, and have our property taken away. What we are really dealing with is some awkwardness.

Awkwardness is perhaps the biggest threat to evangelism for far too many of us.

I’ve done a little research and can confirm to you that there is not one documented case of someone dying, or even being severely injured, by awkwardness. Not one.

Awkwardness is one way of putting it. Nervousness might be another, because I think Currie’s awkwardness and my nervousness are referring to the same thing. We might be awkward and nervous because we don’t feel like we are ready to do a good job of sharing the gospel or we might be awkward and nervous because we aren’t sure how someone will react when we share the gospel and we don’t want them to laugh at us, shun us or whatever. Currie also said this:

God gives most of us this awareness of awkwardness so that we would never, not for a second, trust in or magnify ourselves and drift away from the magnificence of the gospel. This awareness in evangelism makes the gospel tangible. It means I need the gospel right now myself. Not only does my hearer need Jesus at this moment, but so do I!

Just last week I was having a conversation with a friend about a significant change about to take place in her life and even though she is at peace about it being how the Lord is leading her, she is, she said, getting more nervous by the day. And here’s what I told her: I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing to be nervous, because being nervous means that I realize I am not in control and I cannot make something successful by myself. God is in control and He is the only one who can determine success or “failure” in the end. As followers of Christ ours is not to determine the likelihood of success before we follow God’s leading. Our responsibility is to obey and let Him handle the outcome.

I think nervousness is normal when we are anticipating the unknown or the unfamiliar, when we are knowingly going outside of our comfort zone. Just don’t let yourself be overtaken by the nervousness! We must remember to use the nervousness as a reminder to put our trust in God and to meditate on His Word.

There is a difference between being nervous and being anxious or worrying about something. Scripture tells us worry and anxiety are not productive and indicate a lack of trust in God, but I do not know anywhere in the Bible that it says we are not to be nervous. Here is a quote from Charles Stanley that you may find encouraging: “As you walk through the valley of the unknown, you will find the footprints of Jesus both in front of you and beside you.”

Nervousness could be a sign that you need to carefully evaluate what you are about to do or thinking about doing in order to be sure that it is indeed how God is leading. But once you are sure it is, let the nervousness lead you to the Lord. Respond to that nervousness by leaning on His everlasting arms. In the words of Proverbs 3:5b, “trust the Lord completely; don’t ever trust yourself” (The Living Bible).

Deep Preaching

Christianity Today published some months ago a 64-page booklet entitled “The State of Church Ministry in America, 2017.” The note from the managing editor indicated that it was a special guide from CT‘s new resource, CTPastors.com.Now, I am not a pastor but for the past five years I have filled that role on many Sunday mornings for a number of churches. In addition to that, I have been a faithful church attendee just about my entire life and I have heard literally thousands of sermons preached. So, while I found a number of the articles in the booklet insightful, one that struck me as compelling was entitled “Deep Preaching in a Distracted Age” and was written by Matt Woodley, a missions pastor in Illinois and editor of PreachingToday.com.

Woodley’s thrust was how pastors can stay focused themselves and “capture people’s attention and keep it long enough for God to do his work”. I am going to take some of what he shared in the article as background, though, and focus instead on why deep preaching is so incredibly important.

Woodley writes that he sometimes has the spiritual attention span of a minnow after quoting poet Denise Levertov who wrote in one of her poems, “I stop to think of you [Lord], and my mind at once like a minnow darts away into the shadows.” Levertov and Woodley are not alone. A May 2015 article in TIME was entitled, “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish,” and focused on a Microsoft study that revealed that most people lose focus after eight seconds. The world we live in feeds this rapid-fire, short-attention phenomenon. We communicate in text messages that we keep so short we cannot even use proper grammar or punctuation, quick status updates on Facebook, tweets on Twitter and scrolling headlines along the bottom of the news or sports channel.

According to a Smithsonian.com article in September 2016 approximately 27% of Americans had not read a single book in the previous twelve months. That is despite the fact that, according to Woodley’s article, an American on social media is exposed to 54,000 words every day. That is the equivalent of a 180-220 page book depending on font and margin sizes.Think about that: the average American on social media is exposed to the equivalent of a short book every day but more than a quarter of them do not read one complete book over the course of a year!

Woodley determined that the best way to counter this distractability is to go deep. I agree. He writes, “In a distracted, outraged, shallow culture, people begin to hunger for something rare: the focused, balanced, deep. Because we chronically distract ourselves, we crave depth. Deep preaching is our best chance to change lives.” I could not agree more.

I have no problem with a short devotional thought or even an occasional brief sermon. In general, however, it is clear that far too many Americans are spending far too little time going deep with God on their own–meaning we need to take them there while they are at church. An April 2015 post on the Preachers and Preaching blog from The Master’s Seminary cited a poll that indicated that the most common sermon length is between 20 and 28 minutes. I find that alarming–especially given that so many American Christians now go only to Sunday morning services. When I grew up we were in church Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night. Now I will grant you that I cannot identify anywhere is Scripture that it says three services a week are required–or that Sunday school is. I do not think it is coincidental, however, that as Americans have become busier and more distracted the number of churches with Sunday evening and mid-week services has decreased and the depth of spiritual knowledge has declined. Even the interest in spiritual things has declined I dare say.

I think churches that are serious about the spiritual maturity of their members need to take seriously the importance of longer, more meaningful services–and sermons in particular. Of course there does come a point at which attention spans can diminish even when the speaker is engaging and the topic is exciting, but that point should easily be well beyond the 25 minute mark. College courses are typically taught in 50 or 75-minute blocks. Movies tend to be about two hours in length. There is no reason a pastor should not be able to command the attention of a congregation for 40-50 minutes easily. After all, there is nothing more important in the world than the subject he is teaching about, nothing more important the congregation could be doing than growing in their knowledge and understanding of God.

As I said, I preach regularly. The church where I have preached most consistently over the past five years has made it clear that I need not worry about time, and I have appreciated that. They take seriously the privilege of learning God’s Word. Not only do I tend to preach longer than the average (40 to 50 minutes is probably my typical sermon) but I usually address very small portions of Scripture when I preach. Once in a while I will do a topical message but my preference is certainly verse-by-verse expository preaching. An August 2013 article on The Christian Post cited a seminary student who argued for “shorter, more viral sermons,” around 18-minutes long. The individual claimed that if pastors would follow the example of Jesus’ own teaching, such as the Sermon on the Mount, they would keep their messages shorter and tighter. That struck me as ironic because I spent eighteen messages going through just Matthew 5–which represents only the first of three chapters that include the Sermon on the Mount. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, which is basically a written version of his own teaching on Matthew 5-7, runs nearly 600 pages long!

The Bible is practical and relevant to our lives. It is also deep, profound and at times difficult. It cannot be learned well in twenty-six hours a year (fifty-two thirty-minute sermons).

Pastors should not be long just for the sake of being long. No one wants fluff or space-filler or jokes or meaningless stories. But the Word of God is rich, powerful, deep and practical. Good churches should seek–dare I say demand–good preachers who spend the time necessary to understand and teach the Bible deeply, powerfully and practically. It can be done. I suspect pastors will even find that once people get past the initial unfamiliarity of deeper preaching that they will long for it. Just a couple of weeks ago I was teaching a Sunday evening class that was scheduled to go for 45 minutes. At the end of the allotted time I had not finished what I wanted to teach–partly because of questions and partly because there was so much to teach–and I asked if we should wrap it up or keep going. The consensus was keep going and not one person left. We went another thirty minutes. Now that was a one-time thing, but it proves the point that people do want meaningful teaching. They want to understand God’s Word and to know Him better.

Let this be a plea for deep preaching!

Authentic Christianity

Recently my family and I visited Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. I had been there before but my children had not. I had explained to my son ahead of time that there was something unique about the exterior of the house. It appears to be made of stone, but it is actually wood. Through a process called rustication, the wooden plans that side the house are cut with beveled edges periodically and then, while the white paint is still wet, fine sand is thrown onto the wood. The result is that it gives the appearance of stone blocks. This is both creative and effective, and for the purposes of architecture there is nothing wrong with it. However, it got me thinking about other things that are not what they appear to be–and specifically about the times that I cause myself to appear to be something other than what or who I am. As I pondered this I began to consider what it means to practice authentic Christianity.

If you google that phrase you will find plenty of hits. There are books and sermons by that title as well as plenty of blog posts and articles. I found a number of thoughts that were particularly helpful for me.

In one such message, titled “Authentic Christianity,” Steven Cole tells a story that was contained in a 1984 issue of Reader’s Digest. A bishop who had just had a cup of tea with a parishioner commented, “I’m glad to see in what a comfortable way you are living.” The churchgoer replied, “Oh, bishop, if you want to know how we really live, you need to come when you’re not here.”

That is funny, of course, but it is also true. How many times do I straighten things up and do my best to create the right appearance when there will be company coming over–particularly company whom I want to impress? Maybe that is no big deal really, but it is a big deal when we do the same thing with our lives, living differently at different times depending on who is around and whom we are trying to impress.

In that same message Cole said, “Unfortunately, a lot of Christians live that way, keeping up a good front to impress others with their spirituality. But if you knew how they really live, you’d find that they are faking it. They don’t live as authentic Christians.”

Several years ago Megan Hill wrote an article in Christianity Today about authenticity, with the subtitle “Do we Christians even understand what the buzzword means?”

In that article she suggested five principles for being an authentic Christian:

  1. Authenticity proclaims the reality of the Gospel – “Being authentic means that God and His Word define what is real,” she wrote.
  2. Authenticity doesn’t excuse sin. She writes:

Elizabeth Gilbert’s phenomenally popular Eat, Pray, Love was the memoir of a woman seeking an authentic life. Its first page bears the motto: “Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth.”

But for Gilbert, living authentically includes adultery, hedonism, blasphemy, and so on.

Gilbert’s type of authenticity is easy for Christians to reject. Her sins are “obvious.” But are we on guard against more subtle sins? …

Selfishness, love of men’s praise, lack of joy can all lurk, undetected, around our authentic edges.

  1. Authenticity seeks the good of the Body. “We live transparently, not to unload our own burdens and thus walk more lightly alone, but to intentionally share the burdens of others and carry them to the same grace that liberated us.”
  2. Authenticity honors wisdom. “Christians seeking to be authentic rightly value humility. We recognize that we are broken. But sometimes, in our quest to avoid the appearance of pride, we question our God-given ability to shine the light of wisdom.”
  3. Authenticity points ahead to a perfected future.

John Piper once said in an interview,

Here is the big issue: How do you go about living the Christian life in such a way that you are actually doing the living, doing the acting, doing the willing and yet Christ, or the Holy Spirit, is decisively doing the living and doing the acting and doing the willing in and through your acting and willing and doing? …

[W]hen I stood behind that pulpit, I wanted to preach by the Spirit. I wanted to preach in the strength that God supplies. I wanted to preach in a way so that I could say: “Not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (I Corinthians 5:10). I didn’t want to get up there and do nothing. It is my job. I am supposed to preach. I must preach. And yet the devil can preach. People can preach without the Holy Spirit. But that is not the Christian life.

Someone has said, “Sincerity is the key to success. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made!”

But we have no business faking Christianity. The Bible is full of passages that tell us what authentic Christian living really is and looks like. Consider the Sermon on the Mount, the fruits of the Spirit or Paul’s writing about the new life in Christ in Ephesians 4 and 5 for starters.

So, food for thought from two perspectives:

First, am I examining myself and striving to live an authentic Christian life? We are not “playing a role.” I recently read a dual-biography of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts. When I finished I told my wife I enjoyed it but if she wanted to continue to think of them as the lovable characters from The Andy Griffith Show I would not recommend reading it. Both men were tortured individuals with deep personal demons. They were, of course, actors–and very talented ones. That is what they were paid to do and they did it well. But we, Christians, are not to be actors. We are not to “play the part” of a Christian at certain times or put on certain appearances. We are to be like Christ.

Second, are we teaching our students, our own children, our co-workers and colleagues, friends and fellow church members, to pursue authentic Christianity? We do not want them to throw sand in wet paint, so to speak. We want them to be genuine, authentic Christians.

Built into your bones

I recently finished reading Yeonmi Park’s autobiography In Order to Live. Park was born in North Korea and eventually escaped to China–where she found her mother and herself in the hands of a human trafficker. After some time they were able to make their way to South Korea. The book is an interesting read and an insightful firsthand account of life in the Hermit Kingdom, but that is not what I am going to address here. Something Park wrote, though, jumped out at me. As she was describing all of the things that she learned upon arriving in South Korea that were contradictory to what she had been taught from infancy about the incredible power of the Kim family, she wrote this:

It’s not easy to give up a worldview that is built into your bones and imprinted on your brain like the sound of your own father’s voice.

Park’s point was that even though the things she had been taught about North Korea in general and the Kim family in particular are, once you know the truth, absurd, it was difficult for her to come to terms with that at first because of what had been taught to her for so long. It had been taught by her father–and her mother–and it had been taught so long and so often that it was embedded in her. It was as she said, built into her bones and imprinted on her mind.

Now in the case of Park she was taught something that was not true and therefore the result was dangerous and debilitating. But the example still proves an excellent one for the power of teaching children from an early age. God knows this, of course, and that is exactly why He told the Israelites so many times that they were to teach their children about Him–who He is and what He has done. They were to teach them young and teach them often. It was not to be confined to the Sabbath or to special occasions, but to be an everyday part of their lives. The most familiar example comes in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which reads:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The Hebrew word translated “diligently” in verse 7 above is shanan, which literally means to whet or to sharpen, like a stone, a knife or arrows. Strong’s Concordance says the word figuratively meant “to inculcate.” That is precisely what God had in mind when He gave this instruction to the Israelites and it is precisely what had happened to Yeonmi Park. Inculcate means, according to dictionary.com, “to implant by repeated statement or admonition; teach persistently and earnestly.” Is synonyms are “instill, infix, ingrain.” God instructed His chosen people, and His people still today, to teach their children from an early age and with such frequency and insistence that they become inculcated with the truth.

Here is how some other translations render Deuteronomy 6:7:

  • You shall teach them diligently to your children [impressing God’s precepts on their minds and penetrating their hearts with His truths] (Amplified Bible).
  • and tell them to your children over and over again. Talk about them all the time… (Contemporary English Version)
  • Repeat them to your children (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
  • You must teach them to your children (Living Bible)
  • Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children (The Message)
  • Impress them on your children (New International Version)
  • Repeat them again and again to your children (New Living Translation)

I think you get the point. Instilling a biblical worldview in children–an understanding of the world and all that is in it based firmly in the truth of God’s Word–does not happen by accident or by a one-time or even once-in-awhile instruction. It takes intentionality, repetition, consistency and perseverance. In his commentary, Joseph Benson says the verse means to teach God’s truths to children “so as that they may pierce deeply into their hearts.” Matthew Poole says the exact same thing. I like how the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges puts it though: “make incisive and impress them on thy children; rub them in.”

One of the reasons I like that in particular is that rubbing it in requires contact. It requires being up close and personal. Rubbing it in cannot be done from afar. It cannot be done only by words or by pointing the child to a book. No, rubbing it in means getting right there beside the child, rubbing shoulders, bearing burdens, opening hearts, sharing honestly, apologizing when necessary, correcting when needed.

This instruction from God to teach children consistently about Him is not limited to the Israelites nor to the Old Testament. It appears repeatedly throughout Scripture. There are multiple instances in Deuteronomy, but here are some other examples, though not an exhaustive list:

  • O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. (Psalm 71:17)
  • We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. (Psalm 78:4)
  • Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)
  • Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)
  • Teach these things and make sure everyone learns them well. (1 Timothy 4:11, TLB)
  • But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14-15)

3 John 4 says, “I could have no greater joy than to hear that my children are following the truth” (NLT). I agree with that sentiment. In keeping with the thought shared by Park, I cannot imagine any greater joy than knowing that when my children think about God’s truth it is my voice they are hearing. Oh Lord, grant me the discernment and yieledness to parent my children according to Your Word, teaching them Your way and your Truth.

Would you like a receipt?

I have a pet peeve. More than one probably (like most people), but one of my biggest is when I use the “pay at the pump” feature at a gas station, select “yes” when it asks if I want a receipt, and then there is no paper to print the receipt. Sometimes nothing happens, sometimes the screen says something like “Clerk has receipt.” Either way, the result is that I have to walk into the gas station if I want my receipt. And I almost always want my receipt–either because I used a debit card and I need to remember the amount to deduct it later and/or I want to make sure the charge was correct. The entire purpose of paying at the pump, however, is avoiding having to go inside. In the grand scheme of life, this is really not a big deal, but it does irritate me.

One day not too long ago I had one of these experinces at a local gas station. I think I may have already been perturbed about something else anyway, but when the machine failed to print my receipt I was walking toward the building to get it, muttering to myself and vowing that I was going to let my irritation be known. “You know me having to come in here comepltely defeats the point of having a pay at the pump option!” I planned to say. “Would it be that hard to go out there and put mor ereceipt paper in the machine?!”

When I walked inside, though, I took one look at the lady working behind the counter and recognized her as someone who attends the same church I do. Immediately my irritation and planned tirade was replaced by the realization that I had to smile, ask how she was doing and say thank you when she handed me the receipt–for two reasons. One, she knew who I was and knew other people I know, so I had to be civil lest she tell other people what a jerk I was and what a rotten attitude I had when I came into the store, thus damaging my reputation. Two, she also knows I profess to be a Christian, so I needed to maintain decent behavior in order to avoiding tarnishing my reputation and/or the reputation of the ministry where I serve.

All of this went through my head in less than a second but I pondered it more later and realized how absurd it is to straighten up and behave myself because I am interacting with someone I know, yet I was fully prepared to unload both barrels if the person behind the counter was a stranger to me. For one thing, it would be quite possible that they knew who I was even if I did not know them; I have found this to be a regular phenomenon in the samll community in which we live. I am recognized frequently, either by name or by my position at the school. So, the two reasons identified above were still possibilities.

Even if the worker did not know me, though, my responsibility as a Christian is to show love, kindness, patience, gentleness and self-control to everyone I meet. I may, frankly, be even more important when interacting with non-Christians, since my attitude and behavior, if they find out I am a Christian, could taint their opinion of all Christians–and of Christ. Jesus made it clear in Matthew 5 that His followers are to be salt and light. When I act in a way that is not consistent with how Christ has called me to live I lose my saltiness, I hide my light under a bushel or a bowl. Jesus said such salt is good for nothing butto trampled under foot. I am to let my light shine so that others can see my good deeds and glorify God. My interactions with others–every one of them–are opportunities to spread salt and light in a dark and rotting world. Being polite-even kind–to a strenger may make his or her day, may provide some encouragement, may be the only posiitve interaction they have that day (especially if they work at a gas station and the pump printer is out of receipt paper and there are other customers who get as irritated by that as I do!). Too, being kind and polite may not do any of those things. The stranger may not even notice, or may be grumpy in response for whatever reason. It really doesn’t matter. We are not called to be salt and light only to other Christians or only when there is paper in the pump printer (in other words, only when things are going our way). Instead, we are called to be salt and light, to demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit, all the time to everyone–because that is what Christ calls us to do.

Battling Porn

This post contains mature content that may be offensive to some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

Pornography is not topic that many people are comfortable talking about in an honest and forthright manner. Many people do not like to talk about it at all–at least not many people outside of a locker room or frat house gathering. For many years the church was not willing to take about it at all in any constructive manner, by which I mean saying anything beyond “it’s bad, don’t do it” (or something even more directly threatening and minimally helpful). That has changed some in recent years with Stephen Arterburn’s The Every Man Series of books, Clay Crosse’s honesty in his 2005 book I Surrender All: Rebuilding a Marriage Broken by Pornography and others. In my November 6, 2015 post Not-So-Good News I explained that the announcement that Playboy would no longer publish nude images in its magazine was good news but actually indicative of the ease with which nudity and all manner of sexual activity is now available to just about anyone just about anywhere thanks to the internet. That post also addressed some of the high costs of pornography.

In April 2016 TIME ran a cover story on the subject entitled “PORN,” with the “o” depicted as a red circle with an X in the middle of it. Belinda Luscombe’s article was subtitled “Why young men who grew up with Internet porn are becoming advocates for turning it off.” The article consumed five-and-a-half pages of the magazine (not including a two-page photo and headline introducing the story) and included a graph showing that there were 58 million monthly U.S. visitors to adult internet sites in February 2006, which equated to 34.7% of all U.S. internet users. Broadband internet had just reached 50% of Americans that year. in January 2016 there were 107 million monthly visitors to adult internet sites, accounting for 41.3% of all U.S. internet users. The graph also showed that in 2009 there were 22.3 billion video views on the adult video-sharing site Pornhub. In 2015 that number was 87.8 billion. In 2016 Pornhub launched a virtual reality channel.

I already told you what TIME‘s cover said for the April 11 issue. The cover page of the article, though, reads this way:

Porn and the threat to virility.” The subtitle says, “The first generation of men who grew up with unlimited online porn sound the alarm.” The lead to the story introduces Noah Church, “a 26-year-old part-time wildland firefighter in Portland, Ore. When he was 9, he found naked pictures on the Internet. he learned how to download explicit videos. When he was 15, streaming videos arrived, and he watched those. Often. Several times a day, doing that which people often do while watching that genre by themselves.

The article then informs the reader that it did not take too long before those videos no longer aroused Church as much as they used to, “so he moved on to different configurations, sometimes involving just women, sometimes involving one woman and several guys, sometimes even an unwilling woman.” Church stated that he could find anything he could imagine as well as plenty that he could not imagine. Eventually the appeal and arousal from those diminished as well, and “he moved on ot the next level, more intense, often more violent.”

This is a truth that has been too often ignored over the years–that pornography is like a drug. Plenty of studies show that it has a similar effect on the brain as drug use and that, over time, the effect is diminished, requiring the user to find something stronger and more arousing in order to get the same result achieved previously. In other words, porn works just like gateway drugs which progress to stronger and more dangerous ones. Can use of porn eventually result in death, like a drug overdose? No. It could, I imagine, result in the user killing someone else as a result of acting out what was seen in the pornography or seeking to achieve a thrill by making what was fantasy a reality. I think there are a number of such stories that could be found with little effort.

The TIME article goes on to explain that when Church finally had the opportunity to “have actual sex” during his twelfth-grade year, his body would not respond. “There was a disconnect between what I wanted in my mind and how by body reacted,” he said. That was the segue into the article’s discussion of PIED–porn-induced erectile dysfunction. I had never before heard of this term or condition but, unlike some new medical diagnoses that seem to be fancy made-up terms that serve as excuses for something that is simply a matter of a lack of discipline or some other easily-corrected behavioral issue, this seems to be legitimate. I can easily imagine how regular, increasingly-graphic and extreme exposure to pornography can have a very real impact on the brain and, thus, on the rest of the body.

Luscombe describes the PIED progression like this:

A growing number of young men are convinced that their sexual responses have been sabotaged because their brains were virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents. Their generation has consumed explicit content in quantities and varieties never before possible, on devices designed to deliver content swiftly and privately, all at an age when their brains were more plastic–more prone to permanent change–than in later life. These young men feel like unwitting guinea pigs in a largely unmonitored decade-long experiment in sexual conditioning. The results of the experiment, they claim, are literally a downer.

While there are more publications–Christian and secular–openly addressing the dangers of pornography now, there is still confusion and conflicting information. The increasing availability of studies and professionals willing to address the dangers of porn are countered by plenty of studies and professionals willing to state the opposite. Just last November, for example, Dr. Sandra LaMorgese posted a blog on The Huffington Post that included the following:

Studies have shown no increase in rape or other sexual deviance due to porn viewing. There is also no apparent connection between excessive porn viewing and sex addiction. In fact, it might be good for you if used properly: a 2008 Danish study found that moderate porn watching gave viewers some benefits. Both men and women who did so said they had more satisfying sex lives and healthier attitudes towards sex and the opposite gender. One interesting find was that the more hardcore the videos were, the more positive the person’s view on sex tended to be.

Now, LaMorgese’s byline includes the, shall we say interesting, description that she is “Author, Podcast Host, Sexpert, Metaphysician, Keynote Speaker, Holistic Practitioner, Ordained Reverend” so maybe her thoughts on The Huffington Post are not the best source. Fair enough. How about this from TheHealthSite.com in February 2014:

In the last decade or so, it’s become quite fashionable for people to throw around big words like dopamine addiction and blame everything from the rise of sex crime to erectile dysfunction on porn. However, research suggests that sex addiction is not similar to cocaine or alcohol addiction, in fact there’s no proof that it reflects any unique brain-related issue at all. A study which looked to prove sex addiction was an illness, actually found the opposite. A new study claims that there really is no such thing as porn addiction and those who say it actually ignore the positive benefits of porn. The study has found very little scientific data to suggest that porn actually even causes any negative side-effects. ‘There was no sign that use of pornography is connected to erectile dysfunction or that it causes any changes to the brains of users,’ explained David Ley, a clinical psychologist and executive director of New Mexico Solutions – a large behavioural health programme.

In a 2010 post on the Psychology Today web site entitled “Pornography: Beneficial or Detrimental?” the findings of a 2008 paper written by Gert Martin Hald and Neil M. Malamuth are summarized like this:

In their survey of 688 young Danish adults (men = 316; women = 372), Hald and Malamuth found that respondents construed the viewing of hardcore pornography as beneficial to their sex lives, their attitudes towards sex, their perceptions and attitudes towards members of the opposite sex, toward life in general, and over all. The obtained beneficial effects were statistically significant for all but one measure across both sexes. Now here is the kicker: A positive correlation was obtained between the amount of hardcore pornography that was viewed and the impact of the benefits reaped. This positive correlation was found for both sexes. In other words, the more that one watched porn, the stronger the benefits (for both sexes)!

And, in a 2012 opinion piece for The New York Times Candida Royalle began with the statement “Watching pornography is not inherently harmful to men or women.” She went on to provide some potential benefits derived from the use of pornography before also saying of sex or porn addiction, “I don’t believe in it.” In the same online debate in which Royalle offered her opinion, Ana Bridges, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas played Tevye by writing, “Can pornography harm users? Yes, in some cases it can, but in the vast majority of cases it does not. Can pornography be beneficial? Absolutely, but many times it is not.” In the same debate, Mireille Miller-Young, an associate professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, headlined her opinion piece “Pornography Can Be Empowering to Women Onscreen.”

I mention all of this to make sure that we understand that, despite the increasing prevalence of voices opposing porn and exposing its negative effects, there still are–and always will be–those who say that’s all a bunch of baloney and porn is harmless and worst and beneficial at best. We can never hope that the world is going to reach the conclusion that something that sin is sin. In my previous blog post linked above I stated that “only a heart change can cause someone to realize that genuine relationships with real people are more meaningful and more satisfying than the fake interactions made possible through porn.” That remains true. There may be movements within the world that oppose porn and offer solutions for porn addictions, and those can be beneficial. Luscombe’s article provides a number of examples, describing “online community groups, smartphone apps and educational videos to help men quit porn” all of which are being created by men who have traditionally been “from the same demographic as [porn’s] most enthusiastic customers.” Noah Church, with whom Luscombe led her article, now “devoted about 20 hours a week to trying to help others eliminate porn from their lives.” Such efforts are admirable. Porn is not going to go away, and if you are a firm believer in free speech you may have a hard time even arguing that it should, but there are still reasonable means for limiting its availability. Luscombe describes one such effort coming from Utah state senator Todd Weiler, who said, “We’ve changed how we’ve approached tobacco, not by banning it but by putting reasonable restrictions in place.” There are reasonable ways to limit the access of pornography from public places and to minimize the exposure of children and teenagers to pornography.

Even then, though, there will be real work for the church to do. There will still be a need for candor and uncomfortable conversations. There will still be a need to find ways to help those struggling with porn be willing to acknowledge that and work through it. There will need to be a change from the judgment and condemnation that has traditionally been associated with any discussion of this topic.

The articles in the August 2016 issue of Tabletalk magazine are devoted to the topic of addiction. They are not dealing specifically with porn addiction, but the principles and recommendations in the articles are relevant. The first article is by Ed Welch and is titled “Addictions and Idolatry.” His article begins like this:

“I want”–addictions start here. Then, though small steps, want becomes need. There is no recognized definition of addiction, but most of its proposed definitions share a common core. Addictions are compulsive searches for a desired object or state of mind that are generally unresponsive to the inevitable harmful consequences of those compulsive searches. Most definitions also include how addictive behaviors change underlying brain patterns.

That explains why porn is so prevalent and is not going away. The word says that sexual pleasure brings happiness and satisfaction and porn is one way to achieve that “desired object or state of mind.” Welch later writes that “We are able in Christ to do battle with old slavemasters rather than succumb to the inevitable.” Heath Lambert, in another article in the Tabletalk issue, writes, “God has made provision for enslaved addicts to follow a better master who brings freedom from slavery.” In yet another article, Michael Morales writes, “God’s Word calls us to flee our natural lusts, which would shackle us again, and to make every effort to progress in sanctification.” He goes on to explain, “The ‘putting off’ aspect relates to deliberate and disciplined mortification of sin, requiring both vigorous effort and sacrifice,” while “the ‘putting on’ aspect relates to training in godliness, the intentional replacement of corrupt habits with God-honoring behavior.” My post Besetting Sins from earlier this month talks about these issues as well, and includes discussion about how to overcome sin.

May we who profess the name of Christ become bold in our willingness to acknowledge and confront issues like pornography and do it in a loving but uncompromising manner. May God grant us the willingness and surrenderedness to defeat sins like porn addiction and replace such “compulsive searches for a desired object or state” with “training in godliness” and “the intentional replacement of corrupt habits with God-honoring behavior.”

Besetting Sins

This past Tuesday, Major League Baseball held its annual Midsummer Classic, the All Star Game. I am a big baseball fan and I love watching the ASG. This year the game was played in San Diego, so there was understandably a lot of celebrating the life of Tony Gwynn, often called Mr. Padre. Gwynn played his entire career with the Padres and then, after retirement, was the baseball coach at San Diego State University, his alma mater. He was a (relatively) local guy (born in LA) who became a hero for the local team. Gwynn was well-liked, a fierce but clean competitor who worked hard and gave his best. He was a 15-time All Star and an eight-time batting champion, ending his career with a lifetime average of .338 and 3,141 hits. Perhaps most amazing of all–he never struck out more than forty times in a season over his twenty-year career. By all accounts he was also a devoted family man. He was a first-ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame, receiving over 97% of the vote. When he was inducted in 2007 I was in the crowd–because he went in with my favorite player, Cal Ripken, Jr. Both Gwynn and Ripken had clean images, clean careers and played their entire careers for their local team. Derek Jeter may well become the last player to be join the HOF having played his entire career with one team when he is inducted, but I can just about guarantee that there will never again be two players inducted in the same year who played their entire careers for one team.

I wanted to give Gwynn his just due, but this is not really about Gwynn ultimately. Instead it is about the example that Gwynn sadly left–an an example that was clearly described in a USA TODAY article in the July 11, 2016 issue. In it, Gwynn’s 2014 death from salivary gland cancer is described. His daughter Anisha is quoted in the article saying, “We tried so hard over the years to get him to quit [using chewing tobacco].” Their efforts were in vain, however. According to the article,Gwynn’s last days were unpleasant to say the least:

Gwynn had growths removed from his cheek in 2001 and 2007 and was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. He had surgery, only for the cancer to return two years later. Again in 2013, the cycle of tumors, surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy treatments started anew. Then came the seizures. Ultimately, Tony Gwynn Jr. said, there was an inoperable brain tumor.

Gwynn was in and out of the hospital for the last two months…the right side of his face paralyzed, his right eye taped shut at night so he could sleep and a walker required for him to leave the house….

Still, the article also states this: “Gwynn refused to listen, still dipping after all the tumors, seizures and radiation treatments, up until the day he died.”

As someone who has never smoked or used tobacco in any way that was hard for me to imagine when I read it. Then. though, I began to think about how I am the same way–as are so many of us. We have a natural tendency to keep doing those things we like even when we know we should not. That is really what sin is, after all–behavior from which we, for whatever reason, derive happiness, contentment, pleasure or satisfaction.By definition sin is coming short of God’s perfect standard of holiness and righteousness. Sin is missing the mark. We sin, though, because we want to. Sin is a choice we make, and it stems from pride, from wanting to do things our own way even when we know we should not. The first sin was committed when Satan tempted Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit by telling her that it would make her like God. That was a lie, of course, but Eve thought yielding to the temptation would result in pleasure or satisfaction that would not come by obeying God’s command. And that, whether we like it or not, is why we all sin today.

Thanks to the sin of Adam and Eve we are all born with a sin nature, and when we behave in the natural we do things our own way–read, not God’s way. Everyone one of us is guilty of sin; the Bible makes that explicitly clear. Thankfully, God loves humankind enough that He sent His Son Jesus to pay the just penalty for our sin, and that forgiveness is available to all who accept His sacrifice in their place. Then, sin is forgiven and bondage to sin is severed. Some people like their sin too much, though; they do not want to repent of their sin and give it up because they think that the benefits of the sin are worth it–the pleasure and satisfaction sin provides outweighs the consequences they think. Or maybe they simply deny that the consequences of sin exist, though I assure you they do. God told Adam that if he and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit they would die and they did. They died spiritually immediately and physically eventually–and death entered the world.

Still, some–sorry, all–who accept Christ continue to sin. The frequency and severity of that sin should diminish over time but it will never go away completely. Even the apostle Paul described, in Romans 7, that he continued to do those things he did not want to do and did not do those things that he did want to do. I did not know Tony Gwynn, but I suspect it would be true that he wanted to stop chewing tobacco in a rational, detached way but he could not do it because he was hooked. Like a fish jerked from the water by a hook implanted firmly in its cheek, Gwynn was hooked on tobacco. Whether it was the flavor of it, the feeling it provided or just the act of doing it, Gwynn could not stop. In an of ourselves, none of us can. Sometimes, even when we know in a rational, detached manner that we should, we keep doing it anyway.

So what do we do about this persistent sin?

In a 2008 column in Christianity Today Kevin Miller wrote that God can still work through our “unconquerable imperfections.” Pondered Miller, “Could it be that our frustratingly persistent sins, which abound, lead us to a greater awareness of God’s grace, which so much more abounds?” Sure, that could be. However, Paul also made it abundantly clear (in Romans 6) that we are not to continue sinning in order to produce more of God’s grace. The fact that God will forgive our sins is not permission to keep committing them.

Miller also suggested that persistent sin can produce humility. “So when struggling with persistent sin, take heart. God is at work, and even your persistent failings may work to your good and his glory. Let yourself be humbled by your falls.” That, too, is true; when we keep doing those things we do not want to do we should be humbled by it, frustrated by it and grieved by it. “Wretched man that I am!” Paul laments in Romans 7:24.

This past May Gavin Ortlund wrote, on the Desiring God web site, the following:

Many Christians struggle with “nagging sins” — those entrenched, persistent, difficult-to-dislodge sins that continually entangle us in our efforts to follow Christ. Sometimes we struggle for decades, with bouts of backsliding and despair recurring. Most godly Christians, who have made true progress in their pursuit of holiness, can sing with feeling “prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” or share the lament of Augustine: “I have learned to love you too late!”

I appreciate the way Ortlund stated this because he reminds us that even godly Christians struggle with sin. Like Paul did. Ortlund does not leave it at that, however. He goes on to provide four steps for eliminating those nagging sins from our lives. The first of those steps is simple: hate it.

I have no reason to believe that Tony Gwynn hated chewing tobacco. Quite the contrary, in fact. I have no reason to believe that Lot hated the sin he was surrounded by in Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, until his angelic visitors were in danger of being gang raped by an angry crowd we have no indication that he hated their sin at all. Even then Lot offered his virgin daughters to the mob. And when the time came for Lot to get out of town before its destruction, Lot “lingered” according to Genesis 19:16. Even after Lot and his family are dragged from the city by angels Lot pleads with them to let him go to the little city of Zoar rather than flee to the hills, and more than a few scholars and commentators think Lot was referring to the fact that Zoar’s sin was not as great as that of Sodom and Gomorrah. We are all good at rationalizing sin and thinking it is not as bad as someone else’s or some other sin we could commit.

The next thing Miller said must be done is to starve sin. Gwynn kept dipping. That means, necessarily, that he kept acquiring it, keeping it handy, having it at the ready when he wanted it. We do ourselves no favors when we say we want to stop a specific sin but we keep putting ourselves in situations to yield. Recovering alcoholics don’t hang out in bars, for example. Matthew 18:9 says that if the eye causes on to stumble the eye should be gouged out. That is a dramatic and unquestionably clear reiteration of the idea of starving sin.

Ortlund goes on to talk about cornering sin and overwhelming sin. That last part, thankfully, we need not do on our own. In fact, we cannot do it on our own. In Romans 7:18 Paul writes, “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” Bad news… The good news is in the previous chapter, where Paul writes, “But you have been set free from sin…” (6:22).

The point of this is not to pick on Tony Gwynn. I am just like him. To my knowledge he was not a believer. But his life, which ended with him continuing to use the product that killed him right up until the day that it killed him, is an excellent example of where we will go if we try to live life in our own strength. We will continue to do that which harms us, trading the ultimate consequence for the temporary pleasure. May Gwynn’s demise be a lesson to us that we must hate and starve our sin, yield to the work of the Savior in our lives and overwhelm that sin which so easily besets us.