The Biblical Principle for Breaking Bad Compulsions- a Look into Romans 7-8.

The last few posts from my out of print book, “When God Gives a Time Out”  established that we often have the compulsion to do things. Sometimes this compulsion arises from our need to be esteemed or our need for achievement.  God may give us a time out to remove the distracting activity and grow our relationship with Him. Today’s post moves on to how we begin to break our compulsions (whether it is a habit to do or other sinful pattern) through our trust in God.

Let’s assume you trust God to break your habit to do. You don’t know, however, how that trust should play out in your everyday life.  What is your part in this?  Subsequent posts will suggest how you can give yourself a time out to hear the voice of God.  Incorporating some of these suggestions into your life is a way of breaking the habit to do as you become more intentional about stopping and listening to God.  However, there is an overarching principle to breaking any sin habit or compulsion. All of our attempts at intentionally giving ourselves a time out must flow from this principle.  This principle is articulated in the book of Romans, chapters 7 and 8.  Because these scriptures are the key to understanding how we are to participate in God’s work of freeing us from sin habits, I have devoted this post to going through this passage of scripture.

(Click here: “An Introduction to Time Outs” if you want to start with chapter 1 of When God Gives a Time Out.)

Romans 7 and 8 are the Apostle Paul’s answer for breaking any sin habit, which includes our habit to do.  Let us take a deeper look into these chapters to learn God’s plan for breaking sin patterns in our life. We pick up Paul’s argument at Romans 7:4:  

“4Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. 5For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. 6But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.”

Romans 7:4-6 (NASB)

The “therefore” in Paul’s argument refers back to the fact that believers have died to the law and are no longer bound to the Old Testament law but bound to Christ. Being joined to Christ is the key to breaking free from our sin habit.  The law, however, is an inadequate way of breaking a sin habit.  Remember, this sin habit can be our addiction to do, or a sin habit concerning lustful thoughts, or any other pattern of sin in our life.  Paul is putting forth a principle that can be applied to any situation where we try to overcome sin.  It is clear that the “law” isn’t effective in overcoming sin. Although Paul is referring to the Old Testament law specifically, this principle applies to any law we try to live by.  This even includes laws like; “I need to be more loving.” or “Don’t lust” or “Be more patient.” The law can be thought of as any command or precept that instructs us what to do or not do. Paul argues in verse 5 that the law actually arouses the sinful passions that we are trying to overcome.  I am sure his readers thought, “Hey Paul, God gave the Old Testament law, are you saying the law is bad?” Anticipating the question, Paul continues,

7What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ 8But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. 9I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; 10and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; 11for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”

Romans 7:7-12 (NASB)

Why is the law an inadequate way of breaking a sin habit?  It is inadequate because it merely informs us what is unlawful.  As Paul stated it, if he hadn’t heard the law, “You shall not covet” he wouldn’t have known that coveting was wrong.  Coveting is wrong because it goes against God’s nature and God informs us through the commandments that He doesn’t like coveting.  So the law, or commandment, is good because it is from God.  Other commandments such as love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor, are also good.  Hopefully, as you have read the last few blog posts you also realized that your compulsive doing can interfere with your relationship with God and you need to make changes in order to follow the command, “Let us press on to know the LORD.” (Hosea 6:3)  

The problem with any command (O.T. law or otherwise) or biblical application is that they only inform us what we should do or not do. Before we knew how we were to act – we really didn’t think about it. We may or may not have followed the command, but it was an ignorant kind of sin and not a knowing rebellion against what we know God wants. And that is the rub, isn’t it? Now that we do know, we still break the command. Now our action is no longer a sin alone, it is a sin coupled with open rebellion. That tendency prompted Paul to explain that the commandment, which was supposed to result in life, supposed to result in him being more in touch with God’s will, resulted in his death. So does God give us the law (or any command) to be cruel and kill us?  Paul continues,

13Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful. 14For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.”

Romans 7:13-20 (NASB)

The apostle is now really addressing the heart of the problem when we try to break a sin habit through the system of the law.  We hear and accept the command, whatever it is, and then we try to follow it. We want to follow the command, but the harder we try the more we seem to fail.  We want to stop coveting, we want to stop esteem seeking, or we want to _____ (you fill in the blank) but we just can’t.  The fact that we want to follow the command means that we agree that the command is good.  We have a sin habit that we want to kick, the knowledge that the behavior is a sin, the desire to act differently, but we just can’t overcome it.  We seem to have this sin in us that doesn’t subject itself to our mind’s commands.  No matter how hard we try to follow a command or Biblical precept, this sin inside us doesn’t listen.  Paul further explains:

“21I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.”

Romans 7:21-25 (NASB)

Paul likens the inner conflict of overcoming sin to a war. There is a battle between our mind, or inner person, and this “law of sin” in our body. Our inner person wants to serve the law of God. We want to break our compulsive doing that interferes with knowing God, or we want to stop being so judgmental, or we want to pray more, or etc. etc. etc.  But whatever we want to do isn’t achieved because our flesh serves the law of sin, which seeks the easiest path, the most self-centered path, the most rebellious path.  In this war our house is divided and we lose almost every time. 

Theologians often debate whether the apostle Paul is referring to his pre-Christian problems in dealing with sin or a problem that he is currently having as a Christian. I believe that he is mostly talking about his pre-Christian problem since he boldly proclaims that Christ has set him free from this cycle of death. However, I think that the pre- vs. post Christian issue doesn’t really matter in understanding Paul’s main point, which is whenever you try to use a system of law to break a sin habit, you will fail.  Christians who are no longer under the law can still act as if they are under the law when trying to break a sin habit. Instead of joining ourselves to Christ, who set us free from the law (7:4) and sin – we just try harder.  We try and use our will to follow God and beat down our will to sin.  What we do with our sin habits can be likened to a steel cage match. If you have ever watched “professional” wrestling (the kind with Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, or the Undertaker) you have probably seen a steel cage match. A big steel cage is put over the ring so that no one can escape. This is a fight to the end. There is no running away from the ring.  Whoever is lying unconscious and bloody in the middle of the ring is the loser.  Whoever is left standing and in control is the winner.  Unfortunately when we go into the steel cage with a sin habit, our obedience to the command is usually left paralyzed but that old sin habit is still standing and in control.  Then we really understand what Paul meant back in verse 10 when he said that trying to follow the command is a good idea, but it kills us every time. 

Whenever we try to use our will power to follow a command or biblical precept, we are living as if we are “under the law.”   Although the law is good, it does not justify us before God because we don’t keep the law even when we become like a slave and use everything in our flesh to follow the law.  The law is good but we fall short in trying to make it a reality in our life.  This is the shortcoming of the law. The writer of Hebrews agrees, saying, “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second.”  The fault wasn’t in the law, or first covenant, but in the following of the law.  This inability to follow the law made us guiltier, since rebellion against the commandment of God was added to the sin.  This cycle of condemnation is at work whenever we put ourselves under a law whether we are Christians or not.  Paul’s point is that Christians don’t have to subject themselves to this “body of death.”  Christ has set us free from the law.

 In Chapter 8, Paul moves from what not to do in dealing with a sin habit to what one needs to do.  He writes,

1Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, 7because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

Romans 8:1-8

We first must realize that Jesus is the one who justified us.  The law could not justify us “weak as it was through the flesh.”  As was said, the law simply revealed that we were sinners and rebellious.  But what the law couldn’t do, Jesus did.  Jesus, as an “offering for sin” satisfied the debt that we owed as sinners against God.  We are now without sin in God’s eyes and there is no condemnation for us.  We are no longer bound to the law because the law has been met, or fulfilled, already by Jesus on our behalf.  Our gut reaction, our primary assumption must be that Jesus made us right.  No matter how much we follow or don’t follow a biblical precept or command is a secondary consideration.  Christ has set us free.  End of story.  You may be thinking, “Yea, I know this already.” But do you?  If Christ alone has freed us then when we are presented with a biblical command, why is our first reaction to assess our actions?  If we are not keeping the command, we make a plan to be better.  If we are following the command, we are proud.  Our gut reaction isn’t “Oh thank you Jesus – I am right already because of you.”  We must be truly Christ centered.  We are bound to Him now, not to a command, not to a religion, not to a moral code, not to a set of religious acts. Our justification is centered on Christ. Our deep, gut conviction must be that we have already been made right by Christ alone. If this truth is not the lifeblood of our soul then our living righteously is already compromised. 

The same Christ who justified us eternally in the sight of God will enable us to live our life righteously in this life (sanctification). The key is the same. Our sanctification, like our justification, is centered on Christ. Sanctification is the process in which we become more set apart to God and more like Christ.  Sanctification includes breaking sin habits or anything that hinders us from being Christ-like (i.e. compulsive doing or esteem seeking).  If we try to sanctify ourselves by trying harder to follow a command, we are walking according to the flesh. The mind set on anything other than Christ leads to failure and an inability to achieve the very thing we desire (verse 7).  No matter how hard we try, or our motivation for trying, if we are following a command by using our flesh we cannot please God (v.8). We cannot please God because not only do we fail at following the command, we try to complete in our flesh what God initiated through His Spirit. As Paul wrote in Galatians, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Our deliverance and our victory over any sin habit are found in Christ. Our mind must be set on the Spirit – it must be God centered. When we focus on the command, on trying harder, on judging our performance, we lose touch with our solution. We lose touch with Christ.  We go back to walking in the flesh. Paul continues,

9However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. 10If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.”

Romans 8:9-11

If Jesus has truly justified us then God in the person of the Holy Spirit dwells in us.  This is the same Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.  That power that gave life to Jesus will give life to us. We are no longer subject to this “body of death,” as Paul stated earlier. Instead, the righteousness of Christ is like a wellspring that feeds into our inner person and gives us life. We must stay attached to this life source by setting our minds on Christ and the fact that He makes us right eternally. We also stay attached by setting our minds on the Spirit and His power to live righteously through us now. Our living is more like riding, riding on the Holy Spirit who will cause us to live differently from the inside out. Once we set our minds on the flesh, we are done for. That is what Paul goes on to say in this last section:

12So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.”

Romans 8:12-17

Trying harder didn’t save us, so we are no longer under any obligation to that method. We are only under obligation to God and it is through our focus on Him that we can follow those commands. We are riding on the coattails of His Spirit, as God lives through us. Naturally, the Spirit lives righteously and as long as we are clinging to Him we live wherever He is.  This is not a spirit of slavery or fear that we are not measuring up to some law. This is the Holy Spirit who reassures us that we are God’s beloved children and that we already have all that we need to become like Him. We no longer have only our spirit versus our flesh. We now also have the Holy Spirit of God and all His power, guidance, and gifts. We don’t have an external set of laws to strive for, we now have an internal advocate who seeks to sanctify us from the inside out. He is our answer when we are stuck in a sin habit. When we want to stop being compulsive about doing things because we want to hear God’s voice, our relationship with Jesus, and the presence of the Holy Spirit, is the answer. Our mind must be set on Christ and our dependence must be on Christ for justification and sanctification. 

This section of Romans must be our guide when addressing any sinful behavior in our life. It is clear that the guiding principle is to depend on and focus on Christ alone to set us free. While our natural inclination may be to try harder, our hope lies not in struggling to obtain what we don’t have, but resting in what we have already.  On Christmas we are reminded that we have Immanuel – “God with us”.  Nothing can separate us from God and His love.  We are irrevocably adopted as His children. This relationship holds the keys to our abundant life both here and in heaven. Doers have a difficult time swallowing this pill. We want a method, a checklist, an action plan. These techniques are not God’s solution. God gives us a time out so that we hear HIS voice.  God gives us a time out so that we will build a relationship with Him – not build a plan or method. If we look to some method or action plan to save us from our deeply ingrained sinfulness then we are trying to use the sin of self-sufficiency to defeat our sinful compulsions. 

In subsequent posts I will share some ideas that may help you focus on God. As the above scripture shows, it is our focus on God that will free us from any sin habit, including compulsive doing. Reading this post, the ideas for giving yourself a time out – none of these are the answer. They are all means to an end, suggestions to help you focus on God. After all, God gives you a time out in order to hear HIS voice, not mine. 

If you choose to follow some of the ideas I present in subsequent posts, know that they must flow from your conviction that focusing on Christ is the answer. The second part of the overall principle found in Romans 7 & 8 is that we are dependant on Christ alone to free us.  This conviction must descend from our heads to our hearts. There is no easy way to do this.  This principle must soak into your soul. Ironically, as you mistakenly depend on your will to sanctify yourself and then fail, this principle will sink deeper into your soul. Whole, deep, dependent living is a process. For now you may need to simply acknowledge this fact. Confess to God that you agree that you are helpless to sanctify yourself. Ask Him to let this truth take root in your heart. As you live your life in God’s presence, being dependant (and slipping up and being not so dependant) this truth will take root. Focus and dependence on God is a life long process grounded in Christ’s loving sacrifice on the cross.

When it comes to life on this earth, we are trying to put ourselves in the presence of God enough that His grace transforms us[i].  It is like getting a suntan.  If we want a tan we need to be in the sun.  We don’t really do the tanning, the sun does. Our part is getting out of the house. Our “doing” keeps us in the house. All of our sin habits keep us in the shadows of a darkened house.

The next few posts contain suggestions to help us get out of the house.  Suggestions like Sabbath observance, journaling, and prayer are not the solution to our habit to do – God is. Of course, we can take these suggestions and practice them compulsively.  If, however, our goal is to be in close relationship to God, then these are means that may help achieve that end. But we must keep in mind the overarching principle that the solution is a focus, and dependence, on Christ. All these suggestions can be considered ways of giving yourself a time out so that you can set your mind on God.  Like a Father with a child, God wants us to be able to mature to the point that we self regulate. Maturity means that God may give us time outs (Amen to that) when we are young. But His hope is that one day He no longer needs to give us time outs because when we start to become spiritually deaf to Him, we give ourselves a kind of time out so that we can refocus on His voice. 

Questions to Ponder

What “Law” have you been trying to follow?

Why is the law an inadequate way of breaking a sin habit

Can you think of a recent example in your life when you would echo Paul’s words, “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.”?

What is your normal strategy to following a biblical precept?  Can you relate to the “steel cage wrestling match”?

When confronted with a biblical command is your deep, gut conviction that you have already been made right by Christ alone?

Where is your default focus when confronted with your own spiritual shortcomings?  Were you disappointed when the answer to breaking bad compulsions turned out to be, “Focus and dependence on God in a life long process grounded in Christ’s loving sacrifice on the cross” and not  a checklist or method


End Notes

[i] Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines For The Christian Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1991) p. 19

When God Gives a Time Out. Chapter 10: What about Sin?

The last few posts from my out of print book, “When God Gives a Time Out”  focused on doing things to be esteemed by others.  Today’s post pauses to discuss our concept of sin. Our view of sin can hinder us from seeking  God or it can spur us on to listen.  A proper view of sin changes how we address sin in our life. We confront sin by striving towards, and guiding others towards, the only one who can change us from the inside out – Jesus Christ who won the victory over sin and death.

(Click here: “An Introduction to Time Outs” if you want to start with chapter 1 of When God Gives a Time Out.)

Christians often think of sin in a way that hinders them from overcoming sin, as well as hearing God’s voice.  When we hear the word “sin” we usually think of a particular act (usually sexual) that goes against God. In the Bible, sin has a broader definition.  Sin may refer to aiming to do right, but falling short.  Sin may be described as a “transgression,” connoting a violation of God’s laws or commands.  When the word “iniquity” is used to describe sin, an inner, sinful disposition is usually in view.  In contrast to this biblical view of sin, the popular view of sin tends to be restricted to “transgressions.” Continue reading

Don’t take away my esteem power by disagreeing with me.

The last few posts from my out of print book, “When God Gives a Time Out” have focused on doing things to be esteemed by others.  Chapter 9 continues on that theme by looking at how we deal with disagreement. I hope you find this chapter helpful in our hyper partisan time. (If you want to start with chapter 1 click here: “An Introduction to Time Outs”) 

Managing Esteem Instead of Performance

 Performing for esteem can be very draining.  There is another (equally draining) way to cope in a performance based esteem system.  Instead of just altering what is done (performance), one can work on the other side of the equation (esteem).  If a certain group is not giving esteem for performance one can carve out or gather a new group that will.  This is a rather normal human action –“ birds of a feather flock together” goes the saying.  People who think and act like we do always give us more esteem than people who don’t.  In fact, people who are not like us can really challenge our self- esteem if we are caught in the performance based esteem model.  Instead of our thoughts, actions, or beliefs bringing affirmation by someone who agrees that we are right, our thoughts, actions, or beliefs are questioned.  This dissonance is an esteem anti-rush or downer.  We don’t like people who bring us down so we either try to change them or run away from them to a more agreeable person.  In either case, we are not allowing an intimate relationship with God to be the steady rock that supports our faith and self-image.  We are relying on social proof.

time out bookWhat is “social proof”?  Social proof is the affirmation or proof that we receive from people who agree with us.  Social proof is the reason we are so interested in polls.   If 4 out of 5 people prefer peanuts to walnuts then this is proof that peanuts are better.  I happen to like walnuts, so despite the fact that the prevailing social proof in society is pro-peanut, I can convince myself that walnuts are better if I just surround myself with the 20% of the population who likes walnuts.  In my walnut subculture I receive plenty of performance (in this case my liking for walnuts) based esteem and affirmation that I am right.

Instead of withdrawing into the walnut subculture, I could take another approach.  I could seek to convert people to liking walnuts.  I could always make sure I had a dish of walnuts on my desk at work so people could try them.  I could wear T-shirts that declare the supremacy of the walnut.  At the work place and market place I could argue that peanuts are not really nuts at all – they are legumes. With every walnut convert I receive social proof that my position is right.  If someone is so convinced that they switch from peanuts to walnuts then I must be right!

With this silly example I am by no means suggesting that our belief in God is simply a matter of personal taste.  I am arguing that our actions can convey that message when our motivation for sharing our faith is more about a need for social proof than a need to do the will of the Father.  When we are doing, thinking, or saying things because we desire social proof, people tend to discern that.  You can probably discern the difference between someone who must be right as opposed to someone who is genuinely seeking truth.  The person who needs to be right will not allow for disagreement or challenge to their position, it is too hurtful to their self-image.  A person reacts this way because their position has not been arrived at through an honest seeking of truth but by an accumulation of social proof. Unfortunately, this reaction also can exist in Christians. If someone’s family and social group all believe in Jesus, it is possible that a person “believes” because of the social proof and not because they have actually encountered the living God. When that person’s faith is challenged they usually lash out and try to use deceptive arguments in order to win the discussion and feel right. Unfortunately, this is why many non-believers think of Christians as ignorant and hypocritical.

In Christianity, many people need a time out because they are doing things as a result of social proof instead of the voice of our Heavenly Father. This need for social proof doesn’t just impact evangelism; it is one of the great causes of church splits. As Christians, our commonality in Christ is supposed to supercede all differences.  Galatians 3:26-28 says,

“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Our commonality in Christ makes all of our differences seem insignificant. In contrast, esteem seeking through social proof demands that differences be changed or withdrawn from.  Lack of social proof is too much of a drain on our esteem. While churches should be unified in the core elements of the faith, they should also be examples of how to deal with differences. Unfortunately, many churches collect people of the same political ideology, the same ethnic or racial make up, and the same socio-economic situation. Unintentionally, churches create a culture that reflects the culture of the church’s majority. Differences are not talked through and understood, they are swept under the rug or ignored. Anything else would threaten the social proof that reinforces that we are right and good. As Christians who understand the sinful human heart, we should be the most open to the possibility that we are wrong or misinformed. Instead, the need for social proof can keep our hearts closed.

I first learned about social proof in a social psychology class.  Certain apocalyptic cults have become case studies for social proof.  One particular cult proclaimed that the world would be destroyed on a certain day.  The cult was fairly reclusive but did warn a few people about the up-coming apocalypse.  When the day for the world to end came – and went – a strange thing happened.  Instead of disbanding, saying, “Oops” and returning to society, the cult members started evangelizing!  The cult prophet received a new message explaining why the world didn’t end and instructions to go tell the world this new message.

This pattern of apocalyptic misses followed by an increase in evangelism is not uncommon. The theory is that in the face of proof that challenges our deeply held beliefs (in this case the proof that the world didn’t end when predicted) we will turn to social proof to anchor our beliefs. When measurable evidence indicates our beliefs are misguided, we try to convert people. We reason that if people convert there must be more to our beliefs than the proof suggests.

If you are not a member of an apocalyptic cult you may still employ social proof.  There are many Christians, Jehovah’s witnesses, and Mormons who do evangelism based more on their lack of faith, than their faith. Subconsciously they feel compelled to convert people because it makes them feel more sure about their faith. Biblical evangelism, however, is an outflow of one’s love relationship with God.

The so-called, “holy huddle” is also an expression of social proof.  The holy huddle is when a church isolates itself from the world so that it can beat its drum unquestioned. Without outside ideas everyone can be 100% convinced since there is 100% agreement in this little subculture. In contrast, Biblical faith penetrates the surrounding culture and in the midst of questions, contempt, and persecution, the faith remains strong.  Biblical faith is resolute because it is based on a relationship with God and not popular opinion.

For most Christians this reliance on social proof exhibits itself mostly as a feeling in response to disagreement. This disagreement can come either from a skeptic or just a fellow believer with some doctrinal or political differences. In either case we get that feeling to go on the offensive. The feeling is not based on truth or love for that other person. It is an uneasy feeling that we are wrong. When our beliefs are more grounded in social proof than in a relationship with God, we are more prone to be uneasy with disagreement because it is social proof in the other direction. I am not speaking about valid arguments that prompt us to revisit an issue to make sure we have it straight – that is healthy and open minded. I have in mind the gut reaction to disagreement itself, regardless of the content. This gut feeling, if acted upon, compels us to argue in a way to defeat a person more than guide them. This feeling causes people in the church to take up sides as the disagreeing people scurry to shore up some social proof from within the church. This feeling causes us to be cold to people who are different in the church because we are uncomfortable with the social proof against us.

We don’t like being uncomfortable; we don’t like being deprived of our esteem rush from those who disagree. Our seeking of social proof, and the pleasure that goes with it, causes many rifts in the church.  James, in his epistle, wrote,

“What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. . . .  Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:1-8)

The principles in the letter of James apply to the rifts that develop as a result of our need for esteem. The source of these quarrels is our pleasures:  the pleasure we receive from esteem. When we don’t receive esteem, we gather people that agree with us and bolster our social proof. Of course, those who disagree do the same and then rifts develop in the church. But the source of the rifts is our need for pleasure.  We need to feel good about ourselves and if our beliefs are based on social proof, then when our social proof is undermined we have that gut reaction to defeat the naysayers. James points out that sometimes we will even ask God to intervene in the affair. But we ask only so that the other person will be shown to be wrong. We “ask with wrong motives, so that we may spend it on our pleasures.” We are not really looking for unity, or reconciliation. We are looking for our pleasure to be restored.  The irony is that the only way for true pleasure and unity to be restored is to stop seeking pleasure (social proof esteem) and “draw near to God . . .cleanse hands, and purify hearts.” A time out to draw near to God is the best way to resolve conflict. We must seek God instead of social proof and our hearts will be purified as we begin to interact with one another in a Christ-like manner. When conflict arises due to seeking the pleasure of social proof we must take a time out to draw near to God.

Social proof and performance based esteem are two sides of the same coin. That coin is the system that is fueled by esteem rush. Choosing to perform certain tasks based on the esteem rush it brings or gathering a group of yes-men to esteem what you already do are both attempts to get an esteem rush. Whenever we choose our actions based on the esteem it brings, we are ignoring the voice of God. We are, in essence, children in a classroom doing silly things to get the attention of our peers.  Hopefully, our classroom teachers aren’t going to put up with such behavior. Maybe they will give the kids a time out in the principal’s office.)  Unfortunately all too many churches are classrooms that teach and acculturate us into the performance based esteem system.

Questions to Ponder

How does social proof and polling affect the decision making process on an individual, church and societal level?

How comfortable are you in the face of disagreement?  Is your knee jerk reaction to defeat those who disagree with you?

What face of social proof are you most familiar with: compulsion to convert or the “holy huddle”?

How would you describe the differences between a biblical faith and a faith that is based on social proof?  Can you think of actual examples from your life?

Have you ever been in a situation where people were in conflict and trying to muster social proof?  How did that impact the situation and the relationships involved?

 

 

 

When God Gives a Time Out. Chapter 8: Image is Everything

I have been posting devotional material from my out-of-print book (2006), “When God Gives a Time Out.” Today’s post contains chapter 8, but you can read chapter 1 here: “An Introduction to Time Outs” and then catch up on the other chapters. Today’s chapter focuses on our compulsion to keep up whatever image our sub-culture most highly prizes. In so doing, we present a “false self” that inhibits our relationship with God.

Image is Everything

time out bookWhat we do for esteem depends on what subgroup or culture we belong to. This truth became clear when I attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s extension center outside of Boston.  I was required to go to the main campus in Louisville about once a year. At the main campus I noticed many people always took up the most conservative position. They took pride in being esteemed as the most conservative. Many of my peers didn’t realize that what they were saying and doing was a knee jerk reaction to keep up their image. For a time, I looked down on my peers for seeking the esteem of men. I wasn’t so haughty when God convicted me of engaging in the same esteem seeking in a different way. Being from New England I live in a bastion of liberalism and many of my neighbors consider me a conservative. Down South, however, and especially in Seminary I took pride in being on the “cutting edge.” I thought these hicks from the Bible belt were stuck in their unbiblical traditions while I was living in a cutting edge mission area. I always spoke up for considering people who aren’t from a Christian culture and for reaching the lost. I made sure everyone knew that is what I had to do in ministry. Whether I was right or wrong was not the issue. The issue was I acted a certain way to keep up an image. I liked advertising myself as a cutting edge church planter in a mission field. This image brought me esteem from the subculture that I valued most. I realized that some of the classes I took, and the ministry tasks I chose, were based on keeping the cutting edge image that brought me the rush of esteem from my peers. Continue reading

Black is Beautiful. A Re-statement.

The inequalities suffered by black Americans continue. The killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor are just the most recent injustices. The taking of black lives has caused many people to unequivocally state that black lives matter. Because black lives have not seemed to matter,  it is important to focus our voices to contradict that narrative with words and actions.

The inequalities are broader than the justice system. In 2017 on this blog, I wrote a post titled “Black is Beautiful” that unequivocally stated the truth that black is beautiful in the eyes of God and therefore should be beautiful to God’s children as well. While the current situation shows that racial issues have life and death importance, I believe that combating racism needs to go down even to the “aesthetic” level. Many others have recently discussed the structural injustices much more capably than I could. My hope is that this re-post will add a different layer to the discussion and especially challenge fellow pastors and Christians who serve in predominately white churches.

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Black is beautiful. Fellow Christian, it is important to say that – unreservedly and without qualification. Fellow pastors and church leaders, has you church ever explicitly declared this truth?

I have neglected stating this truth. I was confronted with this neglect in a recent interaction with my close friend Greg. Greg was describing his disappointment with the lack of support he often feels in the church as he faces racism against blacks in our culture. Greg is not a “social justice warrior” type; he is an encourager who speaks positive words and humbly serves the church and its people. Over the last few years, Greg has served in churches with a predominately white demographic. There have been few people who have been as encouraging and willing to walk with others through their struggles as Greg—in fact, he recently walked with me through family difficulties better than any other friend. So when Greg expressed his frustration and his fatigue with racism, I realized that I hadn’t borne this burden as his brother in Christ. I discussed it with him, but in my mind it was his struggle. I am a stereotypical white suburban dad who makes bad puns; I don’t experience the racism Greg does, and I can’t pretend that I deeply understand his struggles. However, as long as I consider racism his struggle, and not my struggle, I am not truly bearing his burden (for those not familiar with this terminology of “bearing burdens,” it is taken from Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”). Continue reading

When God Gives A Time Out. Chapter 7. The Esteem Rush

For a couple months I have been posting devotional material from my out-of-print book (2006), “When God Gives a Time Out.” Today’s post contains chapter 7, but you can read chapter 1 here: “An Introduction to Time Outs” and then catch up on the other chapters. Today’s chapter focuses on our compulsion to do things because of our desire to be highly esteemed. time out book

The Esteem Rush

Our compulsion to do is not only driven by our quest for an adrenaline rush.  We are also esteem-powered engines.  Our actions are often chosen and powered by esteem.  When we perform at a high level people take notice and praise us for it.  We all prefer commendation to condemnation.  This preference is normal and healthy.  When we begin to do things to get that praise we start to become compulsive doers.  Much like chemical addiction we start choosing what and how much we do based on the esteem rush it will bring. This tendency can be found in abundance in our culture.  Why do boys put so much more effort into sports than academics?  They receive a larger esteem rush from sports in our culture.  Both boys and girls buy clothes based on the esteem it will bring or take away.  And if you think you have grown out of looking for the esteem rush why does it bother you so much when your kids act up in the store?  Aren’t you afraid people may esteem you less as a parent?  Most sports and luxury cars are sold to adults because adults like the esteem of having a nice car – as if that has any reflection on them as a person.  We may think that the esteem rush is something for teenagers but it is just as prevalent in adults, adults are simply more discreet.  Children, at least, have an excuse.  Children are trying to form an identity and are exploring what brings them self esteem and esteem from others.  Children are testing to see if what they do has any effect on the people around them.  In short, part of the maturing process for kids is to do things to receive esteem from their parents and from others. While a child’s need to receive esteem may be compulsive at times, it is a part of the process of developing independence and the confidence to one day live in the adult world.  The problem is that many Americans never grow out of this phase.  Many Christians are also stuck in this pursuit of esteem. We claim to “fear God and not man,” assuming that we don’t pursue this esteem rush, but Christians are not immune to the addiction to esteem. Continue reading

When God Gives a Time Out. Chapter 6. The Chemical Rush.

For the last few weeks I have been posting devotional material from my out-of-print book (2006), “When God Gives a Time Out.” Today’s post contains chapter 6, but you can read chapter 1 here: “An Introduction to Time Outs” and then catch up on the other chapters. Today’s chapter focuses on our compulsion to do things because of the chemical rush it gives us.

The Chemical Rush

We are fearfully and wonderfully made.  God has made our bodies so that we can survive and thrive in this world.  But humans have a knack for turning things meant for good into something harmful.  Just a few examples of turning the good into bad: sex, fire, gunpowder, nuclear energy, and fast food.  We have been given a wonderful brain with all sorts of chemicals that help us thrive in our environment.  When there is danger or something larger than ourselves that must be accomplished, our brains give us a nice shot of adrenaline to give us a boost in this important situation.  It is like Popeye on spinach, but to a lesser degree.  We feel strong and confident and say, “Bring it on Brutus!”  We enjoy feeling strong.  We like when our hearts race.  We enjoy it so much that we seek out situations that will produce this rush.  Teenagers play chicken with Mack trucks.  Day traders play the stock market. Senior citizens play bingo.  In all these situations there is uncertainty or danger in losing something valuable.  Like a well-oiled machine, the body senses this uncertainty and gives us adrenaline.  We feel alive.  People can seek the adrenaline rush in ways that are looked down on: gambling, racing trains, etc. or in ways that are actually encouraged by our society.  Doing job-oriented tasks, playing sports, and building stuff are all endorsed by our culture.  The Bible agrees that it is good to perform on the job, exercise, and make things.  The danger is when we do these things for the sake of getting a rush.  If we work for the rush then we are no different in principle than a compulsive gambler or a daredevil.  When “doing” becomes compulsive in this way it leads to burnout and strained relationships with those close to us (God included). Continue reading

When God Gives a Time Out. Chapter 5: Do the Do

For the last few weeks I have been posting devotional material from my out-of-print book (2006), “When God Gives a Time Out.” Today’s post contains chapter 5, but you can read chapter 1 here: “An Introduction to Time Outs” and then catch up on the other chapters. Today’s chapter focuses on the pull towards constantly doing things, even when it hurts others.

Do the Do

Keeping busy is so entrenched in our culture that everyone is affected to some degree. We all tend to be more focused on tasks than relationships. Performing a task is a concrete goal that is measurable. Usually, we know when the task is complete, when we have met our goal, and when we can move on. Relationships are more process oriented and they really don’t end. Because they don’t really end, relationships seem less pressing, or urgent, than tasks. Because the task has a deadline, we do the task and put the relationship on hold. Another reason we gravitate towards tasks is that relationships involve at least two parties and all the variables that go along with each one. So what is nice and tidy and wrapped with a little bow today, may be an all out fistfight tomorrow. It is much less messy to concentrate on tasks, so that is how most of us operate.  Yes, some of us are more task-oriented than others, but I think most people have had a time in their life (or their whole life) when they felt the need to “do the do.” During these times God may intervene and give us a “time out.” Continue reading

When God Gives a Time Out. Chapter 4: We Are In Deep Do Do.

A couple weeks ago, I departed from this blog’s usual focus of applying the academic discipline of biblical studies to the church. Instead, I posted devotional material from my out-of-print book (2006), “When God Gives a Time Out.” Today’s post contains chapter 4, but you can read chapter 1 here: “An Introduction to Time Outs” and then catch up on the other chapters. I pray they will be an encouragement and guide in our current circumstances.

We are in deep do do.

Why do we do what we do? There are some conscious and some not-so-conscious reasons for our choices. The next few chapters look at many of the forces behind what we do. No matter the elements involved in our choice of what to do, the goal of a Christian life is to do everything from God’s guidance. Choosing what to do out of a relationship with God may sound difficult and a bit restrictive, but the Bible promises great rewards for following God in our actions. We are promised intimacy with God, deeper meaning to life, power, and inner peace.

time out bookGod actually wants what is best for us and He desires to bless us by fulfilling His promises to His followers. We can’t follow God’s voice into these blessings if we aren’t listening. This deafness is why God gives “time outs.” We are busy and the activity is distracting us because our choices are coming from a source other than God. We are choosing to do many things for many reasons but none of this activity is from the Father’s instruction. God gives us a time out so that we can hear His voice once again and our actions can spring from an interaction with God. Wouldn’t it be great if all the things we did actually drew us closer to God instead of distracting us from Him? God wants you and me to experience this blessing.

The next chapters will look at the many reasons why we do what we do, why we end up getting into deep “do-do”, and why so many are hearing impaired and need a time out. Continue reading

When God Gives a Time Out. Chapter 3: Be careful where you are going–you may actually get there.

Be Careful Where You Are Headed – You May Actually Get There.

I am a doer.  When I first met my wife, Wendi, I was in college at the University of Maryland in the Washington D.C. area and I had a seven year plan.  This plan spelled out what I was going to achieve over the next several years.  I planned to complete my undergraduate degree with a 4.0 GPA, while interning in the nation’s capitol.  I was in a Military Intelligence Army reserve unit next to the National Security Agency (NSA) and was looking into some part time work for the NSA. This scenario would have set me up nicely to be accepted into an ivy-league law school to specialize in international law.  After law school the seven years would be completed and after taking stock, I could make a new plan.  To me, relationships were secondary to accomplishing goals.  I let Wendi know that my plan was in place and that where our relationship was going (to marriage or elsewhere) depended on the status of my plan.

time out bookI followed my plan for about a year and a half with quite a bit of success.  My plan changed, however, when God brought me to my first “time out.”  God gave me a sneak peak into what would happen if I actually achieved everything in my plan.  I asked myself, “If my wildest dreams came true, if I become a high level advisor on the national level, or if I am elected to the legislature, then so what?”  Even if I achieved all those goals, they would be gone – forgotten within a generation.  If I achieved my wildest dreams I would have achieved nothingness.  This revelation didn’t come about subtly.  It was driven home by a Bible cult that I had started hanging around with. (I describe this association more in subsequent chapters.)  God knew that I needed a LOUD wake up call.  After a short time of looking at things through an eternal perspective I knew that God was the only thing of any permanence and the only thing worth devoting my life to.  I soon realized that I wanted to devote my life to God but not this cult.  In the cult’s eyes you couldn’t do one without the other.  Rather confused and feeling that I didn’t want to follow my plan or this cult anymore, I left.  I went back home to live with my parents.  For the next couple of months I was in time out. God took away everything I was doing. I no longer had a plan except to abandon my old plan because it was worthless.  I didn’t have a clear grasp of what the Bible really said or what God wanted me to do next.   Away from college and all I had lived for, I spent the subsequent few months pouring over the Bible for myself.  I really focused on the voice of the Father and my relationship with Him grew.  This was my first time out and it felt like the hardest time of my life while I was going through it. But in hindsight, I am so thankful for that time out.  I was so focused on doing, on achieving, on following the American dream that I was actually throwing my life and relationship with the Father away.   God was trying to tell me this truth for some time, but I couldn’t hear him.  I was too busy doing stuff.  I needed a time out and that is exactly what I received. Continue reading