Why study Ezekiel? Despite its neglect in contemporary Christianity, Ezekiel addresses many relevant issues for Christian living and thought. Overwhelmingly, Ezekiel speaks to both the justice and grace of God; it shows how a holy God must judge even as He plans to restore. In addition, the book of Ezekiel introduces important concepts that help us understand the scriptures as a whole. Concepts like: the importance of the exile in understanding the biblical story line, idolatry, what is the nature of biblical prophecy and how do we understand it, false prophecy, end times prophecy, God’s glory presence, the role of leaders in the faith community, the Holy Spirit, God’s plan for renewal, and the sacrificial system.
Ezekiel presents challenges due to its length (48 chapters!), its sometimes bizarre and scandalous prophecies, and the disagreement about when and how those prophecies are fulfilled. Nevertheless, we deepen our faith and our understanding when we tackle the difficult passages and pay attention to the “whole counsel of scripture.” Too many Christians have a shallow understanding and faith because they have only encountered the “easy” and palatable scriptures-often taken out of context.
Method: This study encourages a contextual reading of Ezekiel. A contextual reading means the specific chapters and verses are read in light of the whole section in which they appear. The study guide constantly reviews previous material and relates each chapter to the larger context and section. Participants are expected to not only read the assigned chapters for that week beforehand, but re-read the whole section when possible. Even though I have tried to balance brevity and depth, averaging more than two chapters a week requires selectivity in what is covered. Even at this rapid, but responsible pace, the sad truth is that any study over 10 weeks requiring preparation probably will see half the initial participants drop out by the end. Such a tendency cannot prevent us from diving into the longer books of scripture. Otherwise, we will never mine the riches of many Old Testament books, and we will settle for a few out of context proof texts.
The study guide deals mostly with unpacking the text and its themes. When I actually led this study, I ended each session with how to apply the text to our lives. I have not included the application section to encourage each group to apply the text to their own situations. Because we are dealing with chapters at a time, there are usually several applications, and I would choose the one I felt most relevant to my group or to contemporary events. Whether your group leader decides to wax eloquent on an application or not, the discussion questions draw participants into application as well.
I hope you find this study guide helpful for your own personal or group study. You have my permission to copy and distribute this study for non-profit purposes.
As I have been concluding this series of posts from my out of print book, When God Gives a Time Out, I have focused on “time out prevention.” Before we are put in time out, we self regulate by intentionally stopping and listening for God. Last month we talked about the preventative power of journaling. Today’s post discusses the masters of giving themselves time out – monks!
Have you ever wanted to get a nice bald patch on the top of your head and wear a long camel hair robe? No, me either, but I do want to be a monk. There were (and are) some monks that totally missed the boat. There were some monks trying to escape from family, some monks who liked the power that the medieval church gave them, and some monks who were monks out of superstition. There were (and are), however, some monks that were on to something spiritually. No, I don’t mean the haircut, although I have seen some aging men reluctantly sporting the “tonsure” and I am on my way. What the monks were on to was their effort to include God in every aspect of their life. Every activity, no matter how mundane, was done in the presence of the Father. Monks sought to tune into the voice of God at any and all times. Listen to what William of St. Thierry, a monk of the 1100s, wrote in his work The Golden Epistle,
“For that is your (a monk’s) profession, to seek the very face of God which Jacob saw, he who said: ‘I have seen the Lord face to face and yet my life was not forfeit.’ To ‘seek the face of God’ is to seek knowledge of him face to face, as Jacob saw him. . . . This piety is the continual remembrance of God, an unceasing effort of the mind to know him, an unwearied concern of the affections to love him, so that, I will not say every day, but every hour finds the servant of God occupied in the labor of ascesis and the effort to make progress, or in the sweetness of experience and the joy of fruition. This is the piety concerning which the Apostle exhorts his beloved disciple in the words: ‘Train yourself to grow up in piety; for training of the body avails but little, while piety is all-availing, since it promises well both for this life and for the next’. The habit (the robe) you wear promises not only the outward form of piety but its substance, in all things and before all things, and that is what your vocation demands.”
William of St. Thierry, The Golden Epistle, trans. by Theodore Berkeley (Kalamazoo, MI.: Cistercian Publications, 1980) p. 18-19.
That is the kind of monk I want to be! William clearly stated that all the monk stuff, including the snazzy robe, is secondary to the monk’s primary vocation of knowing God. The goal is “an unceasing effort of the mind to know him, an unwearied concern of the affections to love him.” In short, the goal is relationship. To hone their relationship with God, and their ability to hear His voice, many monks went into an extended period of time out. Their goal was the same one that has been written about in this book – remove the distractions, all the tasks, and focus on God’s voice. In William’s order, monks had what he called “cells” in which they spent their alone time with God. Of these time outs with God, William further wrote,
“If anyone does not posses this (the desire to know God as written about above) in his heart, display it in his life, practice it in his cell, he is to be called not a solitary but a man who is alone, and his cell is not a cell for him but a prison in which he is immured. For truly to be alone is not to have God with one . . . the cell should never involve immurement imposed by necessity but rather be the dwelling-place of peace, and inner chamber with closed door, a place not of concealment but of retreat.”
William of St. Thierry, The Golden Epistle, trans. by Theodore Berkeley(Kalamazoo, MI.: Cistercian Publications, 1980) p. 19
Twenty first century Christians need a “cell”, not a literal place as much as any place to go and connect with God. Like the monk’s cell, time outs are not for us to be alone and hide ourselves from a stressful and hostile world. Time outs are “not for concealment but retreat,” retreat meaning openly resting in the company of the Father, Friend, and Savior. The location is not important, but the monks saw the value of having a place where there were no distractions. Each monk had a place where there was nothing to do except connect with God in a transparent, honest, and meaningful way.
The goal of the time out, or the cell, is to take time to hear God’s voice and train ourselves. We train because at first we may only be able to hear God while solitary. The goal, however, is to eventually be able to listen to God when in a crowd or engaged in activity. This growth does not mean that one graduates from having to take time outs. No matter how mature a Christian is he/she still needs time to focus on God alone. To use the theme of this book, it is like a child who needs a time out because there are too many distractions and they can’t hear the parent’s voice. When the child is almost an adult, they have hopefully matured to a point that when their parent speaks to them in the store they can immediately focus on the parent’s voice. (However, when this child later gets married they may have to battle selective hearing when it comes to their spouse.) The parent-child relationship still needs some one-on-one time to continue growing – but doing things together actually helps the relationship rather than takes away from it. The goal of a monk is to live in God’s presence and hear Him at all times, not just while alone or in time out.
When the principle behind taking a time out (listening to God) begins to infiltrate all of life, then we are starting to “practice His presence” as Brother Lawrence describes it. Brother Lawrence was a 17th century monk who sought to knowingly enjoy God’s presence in every aspect of his life. His life of devotion to hearing the Father’s voice is described this way,
“That when he (Brother Lawrence) had thus in prayer filled his mind with great sentiments of that infinite Being, he went to his work appointed in the kitchen (for he was cook to the society); there having first considered severally the things his office required, and when and how each thing was to be done, he spent all the intervals of his time, as well before as after his work, in prayer.
That, when he began his business, he said to GOD, with a filial trust in Him, ‘O my GOD, since Thou art with me, and I must now, in obedience to Thy commands, apply my mind to these outward things, I beseech Thee to grant me the grace to continue in Thy Presence; and to this end do Thou prosper me with Thy assistance, receive all my works, and possess all my affections.’
As he proceeded in his work, he continued his familiar conversation with his Maker, imploring His grace, and offering to Him all his actions.
When he had finished, he examined himself how he had discharged his duty; if he found well, he returned thanks to GOD; if otherwise, he asked pardon; and without being discouraged, he set his mind right again, and continued his exercise of the presence of GOD, as if he had never deviated from it. ‘Thus,’ said he, ‘by rising after my falls, and by frequently renewed acts of faith and love, I am come to a state, wherein it would be as difficult for me not to think of GOD, as it was at first to accustom myself to it.’
As Bro. Lawrence had found such an advantage in walking in the presence of GOD, it was natural for him to recommend it earnestly to others; but his example was a stronger inducement than any arguments he could propose. His very countenance was edifying; such a sweet and calm devotion appearing in it, as could not but affect the beholders. And it was observed, that in the greatest hurry of business in the kitchen, he still preserved his recollection and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even uninterrupted composure and tranquility of spirit. ‘The time of business,’ said he, ‘does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess GOD in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.’”
Brother Lawrence The Practice of the Presenceof God, Reprint of the 1895 edition. Martino Publishing 2016.
When I read about Brother Lawrence, I get that inner “YES!” “Yes”, because I am happy that someone achieves such constant contact with God. “Yes”, because I deeply desire to be in the Father’s presence in this way.
Do you want to be a monk yet? I do. I want my primary profession to be knowing God and hearing His voice, like what William of St. Thierry wrote about. I want to be so deeply aware of God’s presence that I can hear his voice even when I am doing dishes, like Brother Lawrence.
While monks would go off into their cells to hone their ability to hear God, they also had their faith community to spur them on once they were out of their cell. Younger monks had elders and all monks had one another to hold them to the task of knowing God. When a monk got too caught up in doing works for God, he hopefully had someone like Brother Lawrence step in to refocus him. The monks had a community to keep them focused and balanced.
Here in the 21st century, we non-monks also have a community to keep us focused. We have our church. Even if our church seems to be a distraction, there is nothing stopping us from carving out a group of like-minded believers that will hold us to our goal of being a monk. In a small group of believers we can help one another overcome things that distract us from God, and we can be co-laborers in striving to practice God’s presence. Monks are experts in the art of giving themselves a time out. Find others who desire to live in God’s presence and spur one another on to becoming monks. Robes and haircut optional.
Questions to Ponder
Are the goals of a monk, as talked about in this chapter, consistent with your goals?
Do you have a “cell” or place that facilitates your connection with God?
What are your feelings about the connection with God that Brother Lawrence had? Is this possible for you? Why or why not?
The first several 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. The last three posts have moved on to “time out prevention” as we intentionally stop and listen for God. Last month we talked about “prayer snatchers” and the Sabbath principle. Today’s post will cover the preventative power of journaling.
The following is a common occurrence in many households: A parent sits their child down to ensure that their corrective instructions are heard clearly. They walk away confident that the child has understood what was said. Ten minutes later the child is doing the same thing that was just talked about. The parent asks with frustration, “Why are you doing that again? Didn’t I just explain why that is bad?” The response is, “I’m sorry, I forgot.” What is amazing is that the child did actually forget. Yes, the heart to heart conversation occurred only ten minutes ago, but it doesn’t take the child long to get caught up in doing stuff again. The child becomes so focused on activity that the instructions are quickly forgotten. Before we chuckle at the flightiness of youth we should look in the mirror.
Every few months I look back through my journal and I usually find some word from God that I have since forgotten. I heard the message clearly and was impressed enough to write it down. As life started to kick into high gear, however, all the activity crowded the message from my active memory. The journal entry may have been prompted by a great time out, but I either need another time out or I need to re-hear the message. Instead of being stuck in time out, I prefer to re-hear the message. Journaling allows us to re-hear what God has said.
When I look through my journal and discover a forgotten encounter with God, I have two reactions. My first reaction is one of repentance for forgetting and not continuing in what God has said. My second reaction is thankfulness that I don’t need another time out to hear the same message. As I read my journal, I can re-hear and reapply God’s words. If I hadn’t written anything down, the message would have remained forgotten.
The process of writing something down, in itself, helps us remember. Along with the mental image or impression from God, we have the visual and tactile impression from writing it down. In addition, we read that same encounter again in a month or in a year and if we still remember it, the message is reinforced. Journaling can be thought of as time out prevention. God gives us a message and through the process of journaling, the message is received and applied. God doesn’t need to give us a time out because we have heard (or re-heard) what He has said to us.
The primary reason that I wrote When God Gives a Time Out was to re-hear the messages that God had impressed upon me in my time outs. As I collected thoughts, memories, journal entries, and notes from my Bible, I started to see a pattern to God’s hand in my life. The larger, deeper, and more eternal picture usually becomes clearer when we are able to look back over life and see what God has done. Journaling, or writing, is the camera that captures the pictures of time spent with the Father. As these pictures are put together, an epic of personal salvation history and sanctification appear. Are there scenes missing from your life’s epic story because you forgot them?
God often told the prophets to write down His words so that the people could re-hear His message after some time had passed. In Jeremiah 36: 2- 3, the Lord told Jeremiah the prophet,
“Take a scroll and write on it all the words which I have spoken to you concerning Israel and concerning Judah, and concerning all the nations, from the day I first spoke to you, from the days of Josiah, even to this day. Perhaps the house of Judah will hear all the calamity which I plan to bring on them, in order that every man will turn from his evil way; then I will forgive their iniquity and their sin.”
God had spoken to the Israelites for some time and they didn’t listen. God instructed Jeremiah to write the message down so the Israelites could re-hear “all the calamity which I plan to bring on them” and repent. In fact, when the king burned the scroll that Jeremiah had produced, God told Jeremiah to write the scroll again so that the message would be preserved and re-heard.
Ultimately, Israel did not heed the message and they were sent into the 70-year time out known as the exile. The writings of Jeremiah would be a valuable teaching tool to the Israelites during and after the exile. Because the message was written down, the Israelites knew that God had indeed spoken as what was foretold came to pass. During the exile, Jeremiah’s writings encouraged the Jewish people since God had also delivered a message that one day Israel would be restored. The people read and re-heard the message and it gave them hope. When their time out was over, the Jewish people preserved Jeremiah’s writings so that generation after generation could re-hear the message that they had failed to hear.
The Bible is a collection of messages from God that we all need to hear and re-hear. God directed faithful men to preserve his words because He knew that every generation would need to re-hear some of the same teachings. In this sense, journaling does have biblical precedent. Of course, our journal writing is not on par with scripture, but it does serve to preserve the more particular, individual dealing between God and each one of us. God will not say or do something that contradicts His message in scripture. He does, however, deal with each of us particularly. When we start to doubt His individual dealings with us, when we forget God’s words to us in particular, we have a choice. We can re-hear His words in our journals or we can wait for a time out to hear the message we did not hear the first (or twentieth) time. Of course, if we haven’t journaled and have forgotten God’s word to us then we don’t have the opportunity to re-read (rehear) the message. We miss the blessing of being reminded that God is active and vocal in our lives here and now. Journaling preserves the epic history of God’s personal dealings with each of us. This history can be brought to bear on our current faith struggles. We all need to be reminded and rehear all that God has said and done in our lives. Journaling preserves these personal, intimate dealings and reminds us that God is alive and active in our lives.
Questions to Ponder
How could you fit journaling into your life?
Can you remember a time when you forgot something that God impressed upon you, and needed to relearn it at a later time?
For the month of January 2021 my church is focusing on prayer. Through intentional prayer we give ourselves a “time out” to hear God’s voice and draw closer to Him. Hearing God’s voice can be difficult. Thoughts and distractions often invade our minds and snatch away our prayers. In this post, I share a chapter from my out of print book, When God Gives a Time Out, that deals with this issue.
There is a wonderful spot in New Salem, Massachusetts called Bear’s Den. Two small waterfalls cascade around a large boulder, and built into the boulder is a natural granite chair. When I lived in New Salem I would sit in that granite chair and listen for God. That place was full of natural beauty but I especially liked the sound of the rushing water. When I first arrived at the waterfalls, I always was surprised at how loud the water sounded. By the time I was ready to leave I had become so accustomed to the sound of the water that I no longer heard it. At first, I heard the sound of the water whether I tried or not. Later, I had to focus my hearing to be able to hear the sound of the water.
This “disappearing water sound” reminds me of how easily the voice of God gets tuned out in my life. For those of you who are not the outdoorsy type just think about how loud your dishwasher sounds when you first turn it on. After a while, you go about the house and don’t even realize when it stops running.
We stop hearing the falling water or the dishwasher partly because that is how the human brain works. Our brains (specifically, a part of our brains known as the reticular activating system) screen out background noise so we can focus on the task at hand. Screening out falling water and dishwashers can be handy, but screening out the ever-present God is always a tragedy. Because God can, and usually does, speak past our physical ears, our brains’ reticular activating system is not really the problem. The real culprit is our short attention span and our spiritual attention deficit disorder. We have trouble staying focused on one thing for very long, even things we need or enjoy, like the falling water or the voice of our Heavenly Father. Our attention shifts so easily.
Marketing firms have made a science out of catching people’s attention. Research indicates that Americans are getting shorter attention spans and marketers know this. Commercials are becoming more image-driven as so many companies strive to make an impression before the remote control goes “click.” Americans and their children are being conditioned to take in an image or information quickly and move on. Not only are we consumers, we are now super efficient consumers who take in as much as possible in a short time. No wonder we have an attention deficit problem.
This pattern affects our relationship with God. In fact, you probably have felt the effects of our attention deficit culture during your prayer time. Does the following sound familiar: One day, you are actually disciplined enough to have an hour of “time out.” You take a few minutes to open your Bible and ask God to speak to you through His word. You read a chapter of scripture and see a couple of interesting verses after which you ask God to help your children, your spouse and your church (Most people stop their time out here). Feeling you want to really hear from God you leave your prayer line open and sit quietly, waiting for whatever God may say. About ten minutes later you realize that you haven’t been open to God, you’ve been thinking about whatever task you need to begin after your prayer time concludes. A little disappointed with yourself, you press on with the remaining thirty minutes and let God know that you are listening again.
Twenty minutes later the following thought fills your mind: “I wonder what happened to the credit card bill that I misplaced the other day. Can I get another one issued? Did I check under the pile of papers on the counter?” Once more you realize that you are not praying, listening, or connecting to God in any way. Frustrated that you were not praying or listening to God, you leave your quiet time early so you can at least get something done.
Oh yes, another devotional time ruined by an invasion of the prayer snatchers. Although the prayer snatchers have invaded Christian minds for centuries,[i] the American way of life leaves us particularly vulnerable to an invasion of these life-draining aliens. We want to listen to God and when we actually carve out some time to connect with Him, thoughts, alien to God and the purpose at hand, invade our heads and take our prayer time captive. Our devotional “time out” may have started well as God spoke to us through our Bible reading, but before God could elaborate and clarify what this word meant for our lives we are thinking about finding that lost credit card bill! With a short attention span, these prayer snatchers invade our mind and distract us from hearing God’s voice.
How do we turn the invasion back? Prevention through a good defense is probably the best answer. Actively trying to cultivate a regular Sabbath time as written about in the previous post acclimatizes our minds to being open for an extended period of time. It is harder for the prayer snatcher to invade when our minds are in the habit of focusing on God. This habit doesn’t develop if we give up on a time out because we were invaded the first several times we tried. No, habits take a while to develop and eventually the invasions become more infrequent (However, these prayer snatchers are a tricky sort so we are always susceptible to a surprise attack).
Meditation is a helpful discipline to train our minds to have a longer attention span. I don’t mean emptying your mind in an eastern religious sense, but readying your mind to receive what God may say to you. Meditation is intentionally focusing your mind to train your attention span. Meditating on a scripture, promise, or attribute of God to get your mind accustomed to extended focus may be helpful. Meditation may starts out feeling very unnatural-like an extended forced thinking. With practice you may develop a general ability to open your mind to God for an extended period of time. As with all habits, building up an acute and extended focus through practicing meditation takes time. This focus is also a means to an end. I know many non-believers who can focus their minds on the word “Ohm” for hours. They may have more attention span and more ability to focus than most people, but they do not have more of the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. Meditation in a Christian sense builds our minds’ defenses against the thought invasions and towards extended focus on God.
Another preventive measure is using your short attention span and thirst for novelty to help instead of hinder. Go to a new or inspiring place for a time out. For instance, after going three straight weeks to my waterfall I went to a scenic lookout. The overlook impressed me with the power and transcendence of God. Another time, I may go into my room and be impressed with the closeness and intimacy of God. I also like to read a chapter of a Christian book or listen to a podcast during my time out so that I can get a fresh perspective as God speaks through a fellow believer. By trying new places or things in our quiet times we are attempting to walk up to the river anew so we can hear the water as we did at first. Of course I don’t mean new in a heretical sense, I mean new as in looking at the same diamond from a different angle. The market research gurus tell us that attention spans are slightly longer for new things. We can focus on God longer, and prevent the invasion of the prayer snatchers, if we shake away from the same old routine. This change up may entail not journaling for a while because it has become ritual. We may need to fast to break free from our routine or pray with someone as part of our time out. “The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” and that is why sometimes we need to trick our flesh. When we break free from our routine, it is harder for the prayer snatchers to invade and easier to keep our focus on God.
What is one to do in the middle of an invasion? Is there any way to turn back these pernicious thoughts once the invasion starts? A method that works for me (recommended by Richard Foster)[ii] is lifting up the invading thoughts to God. Here’s how it works: You are praying or listening for God and you start thinking about that credit card bill. As soon as you realize that you are being invaded, turn the invasion over to God. Pray about what you are thinking or feeling. Your prayer may sound something like this: “God, I keep thinking about this bill. I know my finances are in your hand. Help me to find this bill and turn over the problem to you. Take this thought from my mind and hold it for now. Bring it back when I can deal with it effectively. As for now speak because your servant is listening.”
You have engaged the invading thought. You have lifted it up to God, and now you are ready for whatever comes next. This method is effective for several reasons. Because you have actually engaged the thought, it doesn’t just keep banging on the door in the background of your mind. However, aliens in your house are very distracting if they stay; so you ask for God’s help in dealing with the problem. Not only does lifting the thought up to God keep your focus on God, but it actually asks God to bring His power to bear on the problem. Lastly, this method leaves us open to more possibilities. Perhaps God is the one bringing this thought into your head. He often speaks to me in this manner. If you give an invading thought to God to hold and He keeps returning it to you, perhaps He is speaking to you. If you continue to be invaded by credit card thoughts, then meditate on that thought. Ask God what about the bill is really getting you worried. Is the bill itself the issue or finances as a whole? Perhaps God brought the invading thought as a goad to speak to you about the larger issue. Perhaps He wants to guide you in that area. By lifting up the invading prayer snatcher to God, you can discern if the thought is a distraction or if it comes in peace (or from the Prince of Peace to be exact).
What frustrates us all is when we actually show discipline in our life and carve out a Sabbath time, or monkishly practice God’s presence, or journal, and that time out gets invaded and wasted on thoughts alien to our God connection. We are not helpless, however. We can build up our defenses to prevent the invasion of our time outs, and we can call in God’s heavy artillery. Whatever method we decide to employ is a means to an end–hearing God’s still small voice. Instead of invasion, we will enjoy a time when God’s voice is just as clear and soothing as when we first walked up to that cascade of living water.
Questions to Ponder
How often do the prayer snatchers invade your quite time?
Can you identify certain situations that invite invasion?
How do you think you could best train your mind to prevent invasion and stay open to God?
Invasion of the Prayer Snatchers-Endnotes
[i] William of St. Thierry, The Golden Epistle, trans. by Theodore Berkeley(Kalamazoo, MI.: Cistercian Publications, 1980) p. 34.
[ii] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988) p30.
The first several 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 can give ourselves a time out to hear the voice of God. Intentionally stopping and listening for God is what the Bible connects to the Sabbath.
After God finished creating this universe, He took a break. God doesn’t get tired, so why did He take a rest? I believe He took a rest because for a time, there was no need to do anything else. After creation, it was time for God to relate to and enjoy what He had made. I also believe that God was providing a powerful example. If God, who needs no break, took a break – then people, who tire easily, should take a break. Whatever the reason God rested, scripture tells us that God wants us to take a time out. Look through all the Sabbath scriptures in the Bible and it becomes clear that God wants us to have time outs, or Sabbaths to ensure that we have time to connect with God. In the biblical world, one could become caught up with work because it was a struggle just to survive. The compulsion constantly to do things arose from a need for security rather than a need for esteem or a chemical rush. If one was constantly working, then one felt more secure from starvation or invasion. Although this reason may seem nobler than our modern day reasons for being addicted to busyness, God knew that it was equally distracting. Whenever people are driven to constantly do things the end result is always difficulty in hearing the voice of God. God wanted Israel to have at least one day out of seven to work on knowing Him. The book of Exodus explains it this way:
“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel’, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My Sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the Sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall surely be put to death. So the sons of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to celebrate the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.”
Exodus 31:12-17 (Italics mine)
This time out in the week was for Israel to know that God sanctifies them. This is the overarching principle that we spoke of earlier. We are dependant on God to sanctify us and grow us into what we were meant to be. We cannot sanctify ourselves. Taking a time out is a step of faith as we acknowledge that we can rest because whatever we are working for (righteousness, security, material things, happiness) is dependant on God – not us.
In the above scripture, the Sabbath harkens back to creation. The Sabbath was considered a sign and a covenant as God’s people remembered that God is the creator of all that they saw and knew. As Israel mimicked weekly what God did in the beginning, they were acknowledging that God is the creator. In this way the Sabbath was a “sign” that pointed them to God. The Sabbath was a covenant in that God set apart (sanctified) Israel as His own people and Israel in turn set a day apart to celebrate and connect with the God that had established this special relationship.
For Christians, the principle of rest remains. God rested so we need to rest unto the Lord. God sets us apart to be in relationship with Him so we set time apart towards this relationship. Those of us who live in individualistic cultures must remember that God not only sets us apart to be in relationship with Himself, but relationship with His people. We carve out a day of rest in a covenant community that facilitates our connection with God. It is not that the remaining part of our week is not God’s; we still work in His name, play in His name, doing everything unto Him. However, we need to give our bodies at least one day to restfully remember God’s creative work and His re-creative work in saving us from death, buying us with His blood, and establishing us as His people. God’s work allows us to enjoy God all day, everyday, directly through His Son and by the Holy Spirit.
The Sabbath principle is a gift. For the Israelites it was a commandment that required at least one day of rest to remember God, go to temple, etc. The command was an effective external control to give the Israelites merciful rest and a time when they could do nothing other than worship God.
In the new covenant the Sabbath principle is still a gift. We no longer need external controls to bring us to God. The Holy Spirit living within us drives us to live everyday for God. The Holy Spirit sanctifies our work, play and everything we do. While everyday is God’s, we still need rest from doing tasks in order to focus on God. We need time to refocus so that our work or play will draw us closer to God instead of distract us from hearing Him. The Sabbath principle may require rest even from the work of the ministry. Even ministry can distract and hinder us from hearing God if our focus is on the tasks of ministry.
As God’s children, we crawl into the lap of our Father and spend time with Him. Not just once a week for a day, but everyday we spend a little rest time with the Father. It is important to not think of the Sabbath principle as only a one-day-a-week practice. The principle extends to our daily lives as we strive to carve out a mini time out every day: A time when we can be still and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10), a time when we can be silent and listen for His voice.
Is there a day, or a good chunk of a day, that you can spend resting in the presence of God? Perhaps Sunday is a good day for you because observing Sabbath in community naturally carries into the whole day. For me, Sunday is often a busy day spent doing church work. I previously set aside Mondays as my Sabbath but I am currently taking Fridays. The goal is to have a sizeable time during the week when I can stop performing tasks and focus on the Father’s voice. I have this same goal on a daily basis. For me, first thing in the morning is my best time to take a time out and connect with God. I know others who take a time out at night, or at lunch. The particular time doesn’t matter, what matters is that I am intentional about building into my day a time to be still and know God. I have found that if I don’t plan on this time, and specifically build it into my day, I don’t follow through. Even when I actually set aside time in my calendar, I sometimes neglect this time out. The important concept to remember is that taking a Sabbath is a means to an end. If a time out is missed, we are not ruined. We still have the end goal – relationship with God. We also still have the next minute, hour and day to connect with God. We build time outs in our schedule to hear God’s voice, but hopefully they are just what we fall back on to make sure we have some connection time. The truth is we can take mini time outs any time, anywhere. We use our planned time outs to hone our ability to hear the Father’s voice all day. It requires only a minute to kick back from the computer screen and check in with God. When we are stuck in traffic we can tell the Father we are ready to listen. When the kids are actually occupying themselves we can go to the next room and listen for His voice. What begins with our planned Sabbaths, with God’s grace, can become a whole life tuned to hearing the Father’s voice. This is the kind of life that the monks of old strived for and a life that even us Joe Shmoes can taste.
Questions to Ponder
Do you currently follow the Sabbath principle? Do you observe the Sabbath both in community and individually?
What day or parts of days would be easiest for you to set aside? Could your spouse or friend hold you accountable and help you keep a Sabbath time?
When is the best time for you to take a “mini time out” each day?
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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 ?
[i] Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines For The Christian Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1991) p. 19
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.
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 →
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.
What 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?
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
What 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 →
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.
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 →