Staying Free

Being free is hard.

It sounds easy…being rid of the metaphorical chains that bind you to literal misery…having the ability to move about, run away, make your own choices…

But being free is hard.

Because it takes intentional effort and vigilance to remain free.

The Israelites are a good case study. (Aren’t they always?)

They were enslaved in Egypt, worked ragged, abused, and then God/Moses led them to freedom. Pharaoh decided to let the Israelites go, granting them the ability to trudge out into the desert, move around as they wished, run away from the oppression, and make their own choices…they left with tons of goods, and the Lord Himself showed them the way they should go.

They were finally free.

About one month after they were set free, the Israelites were out of water and low on food. Because they were free, it was up to them to provide for themselves…maybe they didn’t know how since they never had to do so previously…or maybe the nomadic existence made it difficult to have reliable, regular sources of food and water…or maybe the unforgiving desert is to blame for their lack of resources.

Whatever the reasons, Exodus 16:2-3 reads, “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.'”

The gnawing hunger and parched mouths led the Israelites to long for the days when they were enslaved in Egypt. Their unmet physical needs actually made them think they would prefer beatings and unreasonable work loads to being free from the inhumane abuse to which they were accustomed if that meant they’d get an all-you-can-eat buffet each day.

This wouldn’t be the only time the Israelites grumbled against Moses, despising him for taking them out of their Egyptian slavery. Many times, in fact, the group said they’d prefer being enslaved again to having their freedom, as long as their stomachs were filled.

Not many of us are the kind of slaves the Israelites were in Egypt. But we all have our own masters, nonetheless.

Sometimes we let people control us…sometimes it’s food or exercise or shopping or alcohol or tobacco or prescription drugs or illegal drugs or lust or greed or ambition or achievement or money or recognition or work or ministry or volunteerism or love for our children or spouse that relentlessly drives us to unhealthy ends.

We humans can make masters out of anything. Literally.

God designed us to serve Him…to be ruled by Him…to submit to His will…to worship Him…and if we don’t, we take our service-oriented natures and our default tendencies to worship elsewhere.

We all enslave ourselves to someone or something.

(And if you’re thinking, “I don’t…you’re probably enslaved to yourself. You probably do whatever you want to satisfy you. In essence, you are your own god.)

We all become enslaved to things that aren’t God at some point.

The good news is we can gain our freedom.

If we pursue breaking free from that master, we can often learn how to gain control over our “issue”. Which is great!

To no longer be controlled by what someone else thinks or by an addiction of any kind is true freedomAnd it is an amazing, healthy place to be.

But.

Being free is hard.

Because it takes intentional effort and vigilance to remain free.

Whatever controlled us before will pop up again, and, just like the Israelites, there will be times we long to return to our former masters, cruel and unhealthy as they may be.

We will be tempted to willingly return to our unhealthy behaviors that were so easy and so comfortable in the past. When our old masters seem to beckon us, we have to work to maintain our freedom from them.

How?

By reminding ourselves of the truth. Any master who is not God will not satisfy us. They can’t.

By remembering how miserable we were when we were enslaved to ________. The grass is not greener on the other side, and nostalgia is more akin to fantasy than historical biography.

By reminding ourselves of the joy we experience when we make God our Master. Recall times you’ve been satisfied in Him worshiping, reading scripture, serving, ministering…

By asking the Holy Spirit to empower us to resist the lure of former masters. The Spirit is real and He really can enable us to resist temptation and see through lies.

By talking through our desires to return to unhealthy masters with encouraging friends and family. Don’t let shame that you even have the thought to sin keep you from opening up to someone about your struggle. Because guess what…we all think about sinning every single day. It’s called being human. And when we try to fight our impulses on our own, our success rate is dramatically lower than when we call on our brothers and sisters in Christ to help us.

Getting free is hard.

And staying free is hard.

Lord, help us make an intentional effort to remain free so we may serve You only, our one true Master.

Trials and Temptations

“…the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from temptations…” (2 Peter 2:9, NASB)

I hadn’t ever heard it put that way before. I could use a God like that because, frankly, I can’t rescue myself from temptations.

I know me. I know my flesh. I know the allure temptations have. I know my propensity to sin and my weak will to resist sin. I know my success rate at rescuing myself from temptations is embarrassingly low (like, 0%).

Because I know these things, I also know that any time I ever successfully resist temptation, it is only because the Lord enables me to do so. And He only enables me to do so because He is gracious.

There is nothing good in me. But out of His perfect love, He gives me the desire to obey Him (I can’t even muster that up myself…) and then empowers me to do so.

I pulled up the verse in the NIV and ESV and it read, “…the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials…”

What’s the difference between temptations and trials?

I’m not sure this is right, but here’s an idea I’ll lob out there for our consideration.

I think temptations are bad things we have a choice to be a part of or not. And trials are bad things we find ourselves in whether we want to be there or not. 

In other words, we (our sinful natures) happen to temptations, and trials happen to us.

For example, when we feel the pull to boast about something, that is a temptation. Our sinful natures take over and taint an otherwise good thing. Being successful at righteous things is an inherently good thing. But when we toot our own horns for the purpose of manipulating others to praise us or envy us, we mar that which was good. Excessive pride is a bad thing we choose to be a part of; it happens because of us.

On the other hand, when you’re laid off because your company is down-sizing, that is a trial. Assuming you are a good employee, you did nothing to warrant the lay off. No one asked you if you’d mind losing your job; they just took it from you. Nothing you could have done or not done would’ve changed the fact that you are now unemployed. Being laid off is a bad thing none of would choose; it happens to us.

So when the NASB says God knows how to rescue us from temptations, I think it is saying God knows how to help us not do stupid things. And He will, if we ask Him to… (That’s the catch, isn’t it? Too often we don’t ask Him and just go forth in our own stupidity and sin…probably because we don’t really want to overcome temptation in the first place.)

And when the NIV and ESV say God knows how to rescue us from trials, I think they are saying God knows how to help us through and out of tough circumstances we didn’t bring on ourselves.

In both cases, I am glad God has the necessary knowledge to help me out. I am also glad He is willing to help me if I want Him to. He is not not in control. He will act on His knowledge when the time is right. That brings me peace.

“…the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from temptations and trials…”

An Undivided Heart

A healthy human heart, biologically speaking, is divided into 4 chambers. Each chamber has a specific purpose – either pumping or receiving blood – essential to the function of the heart. These physical divisions are necessary and good.

image via ddpavumba/freedigitalphotos.net
image via ddpavumba/freedigitalphotos.net

This is what came to mind yesterday when I read Psalm 86:11, “Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.”

An undivided heart… that’s just not natural. Physically or spiritually.

Just as healthy babies are born with hearts literally divided, so they are born with hearts figuratively divided. The spiritual divisions go something like this: three chambers devoted to self – self-preservation, self-gratification, and self-actualization – and one chamber that knows it was meant for something more than self – divine longings one can’t quite put his finger on (Romans 1:20).

The heart is divided. What will that baby – who turns into a child, who turns into a teen, who turns into a young adult, who turns into an old adult (is that PC – old adult?) – pursue? Protection? Pleasure? Purpose? God?

All choices in life revolve around this question. And from the day we are born, our spirits wrestle to put our energy into the “right” thing at the “right” time. (I use quotations because most of the time we determine what is “right” through our fickle emotional filters rather than some concrete source of truth. “Right” is transient to most people, so the term really loses all meaning… I digress.)

Unfortunately, once we become believers, the parts of our divided hearts don’t supernaturally morph into one truly right chamber. We’re still sinners. Accepting Jesus doesn’t change that. So we continue to contend with our “divided heart syndrome” (Romans 7:19), which is what the Psalmist speaks to.

It’s clear David is struggling with the age-old battle between allegiance to self and allegiance to God (Romans 7:22-23). David – the man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22) – still had times when he was drawn toward self, and, necessarily, away from the Lord. David recognized that his temptation to follow after his own passions, as opposed to God’s passions, needed correcting.

So he prayed.

Good thinking there.

David recognized his inability to will himself into having an undivided heart 100% committed to the Lord. No matter how great his intentions may have been, David couldn’t conjure up complete devotion to God on a consistent basis, much less a constant basis, which is what the Lord both requires (Exodus 20:3) and deserves (Revelation 4:11). David knew that degree of commitment couldn’t come from within.

So he asked the Lord to provide it, “…give me an undivided heart…”

And we’re right there with David, too. We don’t have it in us to unfalteringly follow the Lord. Good thing we don’t have to have it in us; He has it in Him. And He’d love to give it to us. Let’s ask Him for it and see what happens.

(For a musical expression of this concept, check out “Two Hands” by Jars of Clay.)

Is Anxiety a Sin?

My pastor said something I didn’t like today.

He read Philippians 4:6 – “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God,” – and then he offered this interpretation: being anxious is a sin.

To be honest, I stopped listening. I wasn’t angry so much as I was searching my mental database for a theological reason to support my desire for his interpretation of the verse to be wrong, or at least one possible interpretation of many.

Maybe the original Greek wasn’t really a command. Maybe a softer, suggestive tone was lost in translation.

I got home and read the verse in a different translation, “Be anxious for nothing…” Crap. That sounds like a command, too.

I pulled out a commentary, and it said, “This is a command, not an option. Undue care is an intrusion into God’s arena. It makes us the father of the household instead of being a child,” (Guzik). I never liked that commentary anyway.

I pulled out a dictionary and looked up the word anxious, hoping for a semantic reprieve. Google said this:

anx·ious  /ˈaNG(k)SHəs/

Adjective
  1. Experiencing worry, unease, or nervousness, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
  2. (of a period of time or situation) Causing or characterized by worry or nervousness.
Synonyms
uneasy – worried – solicitous – concerned – restless

Really, Internet? The one time I need you to be on my side, and you’re not?

Clearly, Paul is commanding us to not be anxious, and, try as I did, I couldn’t escape that fact. And if we are commanded not to be something, then it stands to follow that when we are that something, we are disobeying the Lord. And what do we call disobeying the Lord? Sin. Geez.

With no wiggle room, I started to wonder why I don’t like the conclusion that anxiety is a sin.

Well, for starters, not being anxious – not worrying or feeling uneasy or feeling nervous – feels impossible. Sure, there are fleeting moments here and there in which I feel peaceful, but, by and large, anxious is my standard emotion. And to say that my baseline feeling is wrong is really saying there is something wrong with me. I don’t hear, “What you’re doing (worrying) is wrong,” I hear, “You are wrong. There is something wrong with you because you worry.”

While that’s a true statement, it hurts to think about. I can’t imagine Jesus having that attacking mentality toward me. Something just still didn’t jive for me about the blanket statement that anxiety is a sin.

After pondering all this, I did what any of us would do when confronted with the ugliness inside of us: I got defensive.

I thought to myself, “It doesn’t feel like I have any control over feeling anxious. I can’t never feel anxious. That is an impossible standard no human could ever uphold.” And in the midst of my rationalizing, I found a loophole that just might be valid.

It’s been said that, because we can’t stop a sinful thought from popping into our minds, we don’t actually sin until we react to that initial thought by choosing to continue to dwell on said thought. This argument is how we explain that Jesus was tempted but did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). Being tempted is not the sin; giving into the temptation is the sin.

So if we apply that to anxiety, we can say the initial anxious feeling about any given situation is not the sin, it’s the temptation to sin. We haven’t actually sinned until we respond to that initial anxious feeling by choosing to stay worried, a la definition 2 above.

I took this idea back to the scripture, and I caught something I didn’t see this morning. The command is, “Do not be anxious…” It doesn’t say, “Do not feel anxious…”

We will all have times we feel an intial jolt of anxiety over something. It’s not until we feed that worry that we move from feeling to being. “Being” anxious has the connotation that we are perpetually worried, not just worried for an instant.

This is a command I find easier to accept. It’s no longer an impossible standard. It allows me to be human and frees me up to experience human emotions without feeling guilty. Then, when I recognize that I am feeling anxious about something, I can choose, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to not stay anxious.

I’d like to believe that’s the heart behind this verse.

What do you think?