Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Cost of Not Being a Sold Out Christian: Can You Afford It?

In his book The Great Omission, Dallas Willard presents the cost of not being completely sold-out to Jesus.  I love this passage:
“The cost of nondiscipleship is far greater—even when this life alone is considered—than the price paid to walk with Jesus, constantly learning from him.  Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil.  In short, nondiscipleship costs you exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10).”
Willard covers so much, but can you think of anything else?  What else does not following Jesus with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, cost us?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Falling Into Love, Growing Into Divorce

While “love” is something many people think they fall into, studies show that divorce is something we usually grow into.  

William Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, provides an insightful distinction between what he calls “hard reasons” and “soft reasons” that split couples up and lead to divorce.  In Doherty’s view, “hard reasons” include “chronic affairs, chemical dependency, and gambling” in which “The person is not willing to change.  They have a drinking problem and won’t get it fixed.  They’re gambling the family money away and won’t get help.”  “Soft reasons” include “general unhappiness and dissatisfaction, such as growing apart and not communicating.”  (USA Today, Sept. 29, 2011, pt. 1-2D.)
Doherty found that most marriages aren’t destroyed by “hard reasons” but rather by “soft” ones.  In Doherty’s study, the number one reason couples gave for getting a divorce was “growing apart,” followed by “unable to talk together,” “how spouse handles money, “spouse’s personal problems,” and “not getting enough attention.”  I’m not sure how Doherty defines “spouse’s personal problems,” but at first glance, none of the top five reasons given are biblical excuses for ending a marriage.  It’s not until number six that “infidelity” is mentioned.

What this study highlights is that even when marital satisfaction reaches a crisis point, the problem isn’t the marriage, but our lack of skills. Quite frankly, on a relational and spiritual level, most of us are seriously under qualified to enter marriage.  We soon find that we’re in “over our heads” and feel like we’re drowning.  Marriage all but demands that we grow, and a lot of us either resent the implication that we need to grow or are too lazy to work towards personal growth.

When “soft issues” are the problem, divorce is a very ineffective shortcut.   Instead of finding a new spouse, we need to learn new ways to express empathy.  Instead of getting a divorce, we need to get rid of laziness.  Instead of searching for a new partner, we need to search for ways we can stay connected.  If you don’t address the lack of relational skills that caused the first marriage to fail, the second one will, too—because, again, the problem isn’t who you chose to marry; the problem is who you’re becoming (and what you’re not becoming)in the marriage.    

The USA Today article also quotes Susan Heitler, a clinical psychologist who notes that marriage is a “very high-skilled activity.  If your marriage is failing, make the assumption your skill set is insufficient.”
You see, our assumption is all too often that our spouse is insufficient; therefore, the only logical solution is to get a new spouse.  If we assume that our skill set is insufficient, that there are things we need to learn about not becoming lazy in our relationship, practicing empathy, growing in humility, generosity and gratefulness, then we’ll see marital dissatisfaction as a call to grow deeper in holiness rather than a call to dissolve our family.

I’ve said it before: most couples don’t fall out of love so much as they fall out of repentance.  Persistent character weaknesses—laziness, arrogance, pride, selfishness, bitterness, a sense of entitlement, and so on—kill far more marriages than active affairs, chemical dependency or abandonment.  The answer isn’t pursuing “happiness;” it’s pursuing holiness.  By God’s grace, we can grow in each of these areas. 
Dr. Heitler suggests that if both parties “will each take personal responsibility and focus on their own skills upgrade, the whole picture turns around.  Even one person can turn the marriage around.”

Doesn’t this make sense?  What if we assumed marital dissatisfaction is usually an issue of character, not mismatching, and thus began working on ourselves instead of getting rid of our spouse and trying to find a new one?  What if, indeed, we found marriage as a call to holiness more than happiness, and then discovered that in the pursuit of holiness we actually achieved a level of happiness we never thought possible?
Hmmm.  Somebody ought to write a book about this…

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Facing Uncommon Temptations

Have you ever found yourself in a moment of intense temptation? Your heart pounds, your conscience is screaming, but you end up watching yourself, almost like a movie, collapsing into sin?

There are common temptations, little flickers of excitement, smaller acts of compromise, that often don’t require much more than a quick dismissal or a refocusing of our hearts to resist. But there are other temptations, the kind we’re talking about here, that require a more serious defense.

One of Satan’ favorite tricks in such moments is to try to cleverly turn our truest help and ally into an enemy. His deception works like this—he wants us to view God in such moments as either our judge or a passive spectator who is looking on to see how we respond. If we fall into either trap, viewing God and treating God as either, we become helpless and are all but certain to fall. God desires to be our savior and helper.

Scripture (Psalm 70:1; Jesus in Matthew 26:41; 1 Cor. 10:13) and the ancients call us to a much different response: earnestly, consciously, even desperately admitting our helplessness in the face of temptation, and imploring God’s aid.

Alphonsus Liguori (18th century) counsels, “We must play the part of beggars…[praying] ‘My Jesus, mercy; do not let me be separated from you. O Lord, come to my aid. My God, help me!’”

Satan wants us to view God as an observer, not a participant, in our battle against these uncommon temptations. One of our strongest weapons is prayer, through which we tap into God’s active power. “We absolutely require God’s help to overcome temptations. And sometimes, in the face of more violent assaults, the sufficient grace that God gives everyone would be enough for us to resist them; but on account of our inclination to evil, it is not, and we need a special grace. Those who pray receive it; but those who don’t pray, don’t receive it, and are lost.”

There are certain temptations that a strong character can withstand; our previous devotions have rooted us in Christ, and the ammunition Satan uses against us in these common times are more like BBs than bullets. They may sting, but they don’t penetrate our hearts. However, in the face of more violent spiritual assaults, Satan brings out the armor-piercing ammo. In these moments, we are helpless unless we immediately remember God’s role as our friend; He is not a spectator, but an active defender. Such temptations are won, ironically enough, on the back of humility. We recognize we will fall on our own, and so cast ourselves on a foreign power, one God is only too willing to provide.

Instead of viewing God as watching to see if we fall, Jesus and the ancients counsel that we admit our weakness and implore God’s active assistance. When facing temptations that are bigger than us, past spiritual experience, carefully cultivated character, and even previous moments of study and worship are not strong enough to carry us through them. We need an immediate, active force, a deliverer and conquering hero. It is not our strength that is being tested, but our humility. We fight with weakness, admitting our need and learning to depend on God. The clearest sign of such humility is honest and earnest prayer.

If you view God as either your spectator or judge in these intense moments, the battle is lost. He is your helper, your friend, and savior. Go to him. Admit your need for him. Recognize that prayer is the primary way to tap into his provision. Such “uncommon temptations” are allowed to show us our ongoing spiritual poverty and ever-growing need for God’s mercy.