Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Book review: Finally Free

Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace
By Heath Lambert, forward by Joshua Harris
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.--1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
I have written before about my struggle against addiction to pornography and the ways in which God poured out a great deal of grace into my life as He matured me and led me onto His paths.  The incredible mercy God showed me through all of that, the way He broke in to destroy strongholds of sinfulness while showing me His immense love and gentleness is the reason I have no problem accepting as true the idea of God saving those He wills by His call and not by anything they have done--because surely, I did nothing to deserve that mercy.  That struggle, of course, is not completely absent from my life, but it is much smaller now; no longer is my life dominated by wicked desires that drive me between lust and despair.  However, I still have times when its ugly head is reared, and I desired to sharpen my arsenal especially as we moved; I was temporarily without a group of close brothers to turn to and I desired to put my mind on something that would help me deal with this specific issue.  When I read some reviews over at The Gospel Coalition, this book excited me a lot and from the first time I got my hands on it, its words have had a great impact on me and the way I deal with my struggles.

Finally Free is very well-done in its approach, for several reasons:

Firstly, it is not the typical guilting rant: there are so many books out there that attack the reader seeking a way out with "Do you know how horrible it is for women in porn?  You're part of the problem, you need to stop!"  To which the addict replies, "You're absolutely right and I want out.  How do I get out?"  But unfortunately that's not what those books are covering.  Pointing out the evil of sin and its effects on our hearts is critical and we need to continue, but it is not the end; indeed, if that's all we do, then we have failed to preach the Gospel or truly call anyone to repentance.

Likewise, this is not a heady treatise, nor is it purely practical in nature.  However, it absolutely is practical, in fact I would argue that its effect is most practical simply because the author spends so much time preaching the simple truths of Scripture and God's grace.  It's not just "here's how to get away from looking at porn," though that certainly is an aspect of it; rather, it is a call to recognize that when we allow pornography into our lives, we are allowing another master besides Jesus to rule over us.
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.--Matthew 6:24
I've long contended here that Jesus' specific attack on one of man's most common idols, an idol that reveals how much (or little) man really trusts God to provide for him, can be extended to cover all of our idols.  And truly, one cannot serve both God and wicked sexual desire at the same time.   But that is the point that Lambert builds up to and makes very well: the point of this struggle is not, as I said, to simply cease looking at porn for its own sake, but rather to walk with Christ, to know Him deeply and have that relationship with Him that He has called us into.  It is the very reason grace is extended, and it is why in the epistles to the churches Paul and the other apostles who we see writing spend so much time over and over again, speaking out clearly both against legalistic rule enforcement and against licentiousness--they're simply two sides of the same coin, and equally lead away from Christ.

Thirdly, it goes out of its way to not be graphic or vulgar in its approach to this issue.  Since this is an issue that revolves a lot around a struggle with thought life, obviously a book that went into detail about what people are already struggling with could itself prove a trigger for further problems.  It has a lot of specific examples of people dealing with this struggle drawn from Lambert's ministry, but it focuses on how they deal with it rather than what they deal with.  The reader is able to see his struggles pictured and feel the gravity of the seriousness of these sins, without also being drawn into the downward spiral of thinking about the particulars.  And that particular issue is a big one: when speaking to someone struggling with pornography, the issue is not getting a sinner to be ashamed of his sin and desire freedom.  The issue is getting them move away from worldly grief that brings only death, to godly grief that brings life and inspires real transformation.  This transformation, of course, is a work of the Spirit, but a work like this is a great motivation in that work to the struggling believer.

The book is not a long read, but I took my time with it.  It's very straightforward, and anyone willing to find the time to sit down and read can easily make their way through it in a reasonable amount of time, but there are some study questions in the back and I think it could easily be used between accountability partners or in a small group.  The first few chapters Lambert spends time writing about different weapons we can employ in the fight against sexual idolatry.

One chapter in particular that had a big impact on me was the one about using gratitude.  It did give me a great weapon in my battle, but in addition it spurred me to think about gratitude, and to realize how much I really take what Christ has done for me for granted.  By realizing this I found myself able to shine a light of truth onto those desires to look at porn when they came up, by remembering: this is not simply some random physical desire, this is an element of spiritual brokenness that is revealing an area of ingratitude, where instead of thinking "I wish I could do this but it's wrong" instead I can take the positive track of "I am grateful for the mercy and grace Christ has shown to me, not just to pay for my sin but to open my eyes to it and call me into relationship with him!"  That made a huge difference to me--not to perfection, but in the striving for it.

The end of the book ties everything together with the point I mentioned earlier: the real purpose.  We aren't simply trying to end porn addiction for its own sake, but because it is a roadblock in our walk with Christ.  Sanctification is not about a single item but dealing with all the things in our lives that do not reflect the image of Christ, and as we walk with Him we see those things turn up--the anger, the impatience, the fear and anxiety in places where we don't trust Him like we should, and so on.  Defeating pornography's hold on a generation of Christian men is crucial, but it is only step one, and that point is made clearly.

I highly recommend this book because it is both practical and Gospel-centered in its approach.  It contains a great description of specific things Christians can do in going to battle against their sins, but also consistently reminds and calls Christians to an understanding of the fact that their relationship with Christ is not something offered reluctantly by a God who had no other choice--it was given freely, lovingly, and the freedom to accept it granted out of that love by our Heavenly Father.  Know that truth, brothers, and run after it; this book is an excellent tool in that pursuit.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Jesus for every taste

Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”--Luke 9:18-20
I try not to simply mock things on here, as I would prefer interactions here to be thoughtful rather than short, unpleasant slapfights.  I've also learned the hard way the truth about how dangerous a weapon a man's tongue can be, and so I take full advantage of the fact that writing allows me the maximum time to be thoughtful in word and deed.  On the flip side, I have to be honest: I really hate bumper sticker theology.  There is nothing more unhelpful to sharing the Gospel than some fool who's stuck a "How would you like your eternity: regular, or extra crispy?" on the back of his car.  Likewise, theology by meme is usually just as unhelpful; in a world that so despises anyone who tells them of absolute truth, they certainly like their world served up in great big Impact letters pasted across an image, leaving no room for discussion or thought.

Which brings me to this:

I've seen this floating around in the past, and a friend recently posted it again on Facebook.  I think her reason for posting it was legitimate, in that the desire was to see Christians cooperating and showing love to their fellow man, both true and worthy things to desire.  What Jesus is to someone saved and transformed by the Holy Spirit is King, Lord, Savior, Author of our faith, and we should be saying "Come here and drink this living water Jesus has brought!"

The thing is, most people aren't interested in the Jesus that believers know, that the Bible talks about.  They aren't interested in the king who became a servant, lived a life none of us could ever live and paid the penalty for our rebellion and wickedness.  No, the Jesus most people want is the Jesus that's just like them, and that would never condemn them.  Above we see "hippy Jesus," who just wanted everyone to love and help everyone; there's Republican Jesus, who stands apart and pronounces judgment on sinfulness while patting the righteous on the back (he looks a lot like Democrat Jesus, who stands apart and pronounces judgment on greed while patting redistributionists on the back).  There's Western Evangelical Jesus, who wears a shiny white robe with a red sash just like the paintings and turned water into grape juice, and just wants to smile and pat you on the back because you're doing a great job, buddy!  The point is, we ought to look at these sort of images and be able to say, "I don't know what Jesus he's talking about, but it's not the one who saved me."

Why does this matter?  Why can't I just let people have what they want?  Because I love Jesus, and I want others to love Him too: the true Jesus, not one of our own imagining.  This weekend we celebrated Easter, which is to say, we celebrated something very real and meaningful: we remembered Christ's death on the cross and what it means that He accomplished our salvation, and His defeat of death in His resurrection.  This is critical, and understanding who Jesus is and what He did in His life and ministry is part and parcel of truth-loving, honest worship.

Initially I wanted to spend time tearing the above image apart, responding to every bad argument, every misunderstanding and bad exegetical claim, but after spending time doing that I felt like it wasn't making the point any better than I could make it by simply saying this: if a person is studying the Word, sitting in prayer, and putting himself under authority of godly leadership that is doing the same, he is going to look at something like this (or Republican Jesus, or Democrat Jesus, or Homeless Jesus, or Is Okay With My Personal Sin Jesus, or...) and say, "That's not right."  And our society is full of this sort of thing.  Normally this is where I'd quote Romans 1, but instead since it's been rolling around a lot of the discussions I've been reading/listening to online, I'm gonna go to John 6:
On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 
They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”--John 6:22-44
This entire scene speaks clearly to me about the friction between how Jesus is made known in the whole of Scripture, and how people tend to actually want to view Him.  After all, we have plenty of churches in this world that preach an image of Jesus similar to the ones the people Jesus is speaking with see him: not as our Sustainer and King, but as Giver of Stuff, and the difference is significant.  As Sustainer Jesus is worshiped because He made us out of love and calls us to Himself in that same love; as King, Jesus is worshiped as the one who made us and glorifies Himself through redeeming us and bringing us in line with His will.  As Giver of Stuff, Jesus is a magical fairy that can be manipulated into giving us what we want through behavior.  Jesus sees this in these people who followed Him across the lake from the day before, when He had fed them miraculously.  When they approach Him, He knows what they want: more miracles.  They want the Giver of Stuff to Give up the Stuff already!

Jesus isn't going along with this, and calls them out on it.  They try to ask for what they should be doing in order to get more of what they want, and He does what He is seen doing many other times throughout the gospels: He calls out their hearts for disbelief and lets them know, there is no work that can be done.  Those that will know Him, will come because the Father has given them to Him.  That work is written and will be accomplished perfectly.

And that is something we can take great hope in: Jesus, our Sustainer, will do exactly as He says and bring His people to Himself perfectly!  That, friends, is huge, but if you're coming to Jesus looking for an idol to please in exchange for things, or a political ally, or someone to give a thumbs-up to sinful aspects of your life that have become identity-driving...I'm afraid you're out of luck.  There is no knowing Christ, without turning one's back on all of that as what it is: rubbish.  He will be your Sustainer and King, or He will be your judge.  I continue to do battle with sin in my life, but in carrying those to the foot of the cross and exposing them to the light, by living the life the Holy Spirit has empowered me to live and trusting Jesus as my Savior, Sustainer and King, I am able to know Him fully and joyfully.
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.--Colossians 2:13-15