It’s right to ask God for relief from sickness, financial problems, loneliness, depression, and every other shape and shade of pain. We see people doing this throughout the Bible. Sometimes God grants relief (2 Corinthians 1:10), sometimes he doesn’t (2 Corinthians 12:9). But he never criticizes anyone for asking. I’d even argue that he’s pleased when we ask, because our asking shows that we see him as both powerful enough to deliver us and kind enough to actually consider our requests.
Yet oftentimes God’s lovingkindness may be the very thing that causes him to delay or even withhold deliverance. Because as much as the Lord doesn’t take pleasure in our affliction (Lamentations 3:33), there are things he wants for us more than the alleviation of our pain–things like our humble dependence on his grace and our happiness in his Son. And whether or not we like it, these realities are usually most manifest in us when we suffer, not when we’re at ease. Easy living is rarely conducive to spiritual vitality.
That’s proven true in my life, at least.
I recently experienced a season of significant relief from a particular form of suffering. A year and a half ago I began taking medication to help alleviate the symptoms of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Upon finding the right medication and dosage, my symptoms diminished greatly. During this process I also met my now-wife, Talitha. Her companionship lifted the burden of loneliness I had carried for nearly a decade. And loneliness, as many of you know, tends to exacerbate other sufferings. So the combination of medication and this new relationship provided me much relief from my anxieties. For the first time in a long time, I felt good. Really good.
And this is where I should talk about how grateful I was to the Lord and how dynamic and fruitful my life in Christ became, right? Wish I could.
In the past I had prayed, “God, if my mind wasn’t so overtaken with OCD, it would be more free to love you and be utilized for you.” So many times I thought and said to others, “I just want these thoughts to be gone so that I can focus on God.” I believed my OCD was a massive hindrance to my relationship with the Lord and that it’s removal would bring new strength to my spiritual life.
But when relief finally came, my response proved the opposite to be true.
Before the relief came, I opened the Bible multiple times a day with a sense of urgency to receive encouragement and empowerment from the Lord. I felt how incapable I was of getting through the day on my own, much less getting through it in a way that was pleasing to God and beneficial to others. I pleaded with God throughout the day to help me believe his words and to help me walk in his grace. In my leisure time I read books that strengthened my faith and listened to sermons and sought out soul-nourishing fellowship with other believers.
But when my suffering lessened, so did my reliance upon God. The fact of the matter is that whether I was anxious or not, depressed or not, lonely or not— I was always weak and in desperate need of his grace. But when the pains of OCD & anxiety became less intense, I didn’t feel the need to pursue him to the same degree. And my daily practices began to reflect this.
My approach to the Bible became increasingly casual. I’d mosey my way through a couple of chapters, pausing throughout to check facebook or answer a text or think about other things. After a few months, I began skipping the Bible altogether some mornings. My prayer life also dried up. Rather than going to God with my needs and for fellowship, I’d often go to my girlfriend. And instead of doing productively restful things in my leisure time, I began to watch more TV, eat more food, and become increasingly slothful and wasteful.
Over time I became numb, detached, lethargic, fruitless, and joyless. Yes, joyless. Ironic, isn’t it? Who would have thought that relief from suffering would result in me having less joy than I did in the midst of the suffering? But that’s precisely what happened.
Fast-forward to five months ago: I came off of my medications (with the approval and guidance of my doctor). Not because I felt like they were at fault for my spiritual decline, but because they had a host of side effects I didn’t want to experience anymore. I decided I would rather endure anxiety than deal with the side effects of the meds.
The intense, chronic anxiety soon returned. But this time around, I view it differently–dare I say, with thankfulness. Why? Because the suffering produces in me a sense of urgency to stay near the Lord’s side. It’s helping me to break free from the grasp of worldly entertainment, as TV and food and social media are no longer sufficient to distract or comfort me. It’s helping me keep my gaze on God and toward eternity, reminding me that my hope should be set “fully on the grace (and freedom! and comfort! and joy!) that will be brought to [me] at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13). This suffering is not a hindrance to my faith but rather a gracious means by which the Shepherd & Overseer of my soul is keeping me close to him, dependent on him, and safe in him.
I wish I wasn’t so weak as to need these waves of affliction to throw me into the Rock of Ages (borrowing Spurgeon’s imagery). But I am. Right now, in this body of flesh, I need sufferings to help keep me in sync with the reality of my frailty and in step with the God of grace. One day, when this weak flesh is swallowed up my immortality, I won’t need these motivators anymore. But until that day comes, might it be better to suffer?
Last Friday the Washington Post ran an article entitled, “The ex-gay Christianity movement is making a quiet comeback. The effects on LGBTQ youth could be devastating.” A family member texted my fiancée and me to warn us that the article mentioned us—an already-stressed couple eight days out from our wedding.
“Several lesser-known leaders are ostensibly part of the second wave of ex-gay Christianity, even if they do not identify with it. This includes people like Matt Moore, a writer who was highlighted in a piece that was originally published in 2013 (later updated in 2016) reporting that he had an active profile on the gay dating app Grindr. He said he was looking for men instead of sex, repented of his ways and was recently engaged to Talitha Piper, daughter of popular conservative Christian pastor John Piper.”
I’ve been silent in the public sphere for a year and a half. And honestly, I’ve kept my mouth shut in large part to avoid stuff like this. I don’t want to be mentioned in the press. I don’t want my story told by those who don’t really know it and who definitely do not know me. I don’t want my past failures to be resurrected and gloried in by those who long to see God’s people fall on their faces.
But this past week has taught me that covering my mouth isn’t going to keep other people from saying what they want about my life. Someone close to me recently said, “As long as there’s an internet, this will be a thorn in your side”—the this being my public humiliation in 2013. And they’re right. My rebellion against Christ in 2013 is well-documented. It’s not going anywhere. By some, I will always be known as that ex-gay Christian blogger who was on a gay dating app. This is a longterm consequence of my sin that I must deal with honestly and humbly.
Humility requires that I not consider myself the primary victim of this article. Humility requires that I not seek above all else to restore my “good name.” Humility requires that I not expend energy trying to paint my past actions in a more favorable light than others have painted them. Humility requires that I not seek to make myself look better than Jonathan Merritt described me in the Washington Post, because the truth is that the public doesn’t know the half of how sinful I am. So I will not seek to vindicate myself.
I will, however, defend the truth of the gospel. No longer will I sit silently in the corner like a coward, hoping nobody sees or talks about me, while a false Christ and different gospel are perpetuated by people like Merritt. I will magnify the name of the true Christ and, without shame, proclaim the powerful, sin-covering, sin-shattering, soul-preserving effects of his grace.
To this end, I offer two thoughts in response to the Washington Post article.
The way this Washington Post article was written, especially as it related to me, insinuated that if a Christian commits a sin or even a series of sins, that failure casts an unalterable judgment of FAKE, FALLEN, HYPOCRITE over the entirety of that Christian’s life. The way I read it was, “Look at Matt Moore pretending like he’s happy he’s getting married; but we know he’s a fake because he was on Grindr six years ago!” Please hear me: A Christian’s sin, no matter how grievous or public or recent, does not invalidate the realness of that Christian’s past or future repentance and experiences of grace. Yes, hypocrisy has a price. It may ruin our reputations or disqualify us from certain types of ministry or wreak havoc in a thousand other ways. And if it’s persisted in without resistance or remorse, it could reveal that our hearts are still dead and enslaved to sin. But for the one who longs and wills to repent, sin does not disqualify them from a right relationship with God through Christ or from a future of increasingly-holy-yet-still-imperfect living for Jesus. Jesus paid the price for our hypocrisies and innumerable failures so that we could press on in faith despite our failures. Though our sins once possessed power to condemn us to a hopeless future, Jesus removed this damning power when he was damned in our place. He does not ask people to save themselves by becoming sinless and perfect; He invites them into a salvation in which he himself is sinless perfection for his people. What Jesus requires is faith—faith that continues to look to him as the all-satisfying solution to our every need; faith that believes his blood speaks a better word than our sin; faith that gets back up and keeps pursuing him even after it has been trampled for a moment, or even for a season, by our sinful flesh; faith that says, “I’ve totally blown it, but I still want to walk with God.” So yes, I fell publicly six years ago. And yes, I’m marrying the love of my life this week: Miss Talitha Ruth Piper. Because God extends a real gospel of real grace to failures who trust in him.
Merritt states in the title of his article that “the effects on LGBTQ youth could be devastating” yet does not mention these youths until the last sentence of the article. It’s evident by the actual substance of his piece that Jonathan’s intent was to attack, embarrass, and attempt to portray as foolish people like Rosaria Butterfield, Jackie Hill-Perry, and myself, all of whom once embraced our same-sex inclinations, yet, after coming to know the Christ of the Bible, renounced our former ways and have sought to submit our sexualities to the lordship of Christ. Jonathan: thank you for giving us the opportunity to “rejoice and be glad” “when others revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11-12). And to the briefly-mentioned youth who are supposedly endangered by the gospel that Rosaria, Jackie, and myself have embraced: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14). Jesus himself says the way that leads to life is hard—but it is the way that leads to life, not death. It is the way that leads to deep satisfaction of the soul, not anguish. It is the way that leads to never-ceasing joy in God, not devastation. Do not heed the false words of people like Merritt. Heed the words of Jesus, who loves you and calls you to what really is best for you.
People sometimes applaud my bravery in being transparent about some sensitive dimensions of my life. But in all honesty, sharing about things like my experience of same-sex attraction hasn’t been too scary. I was riddled with nerves the first time I posted about it back in 2011, a mere six months after becoming a Christian. I must have smoked 50 cigarettes that day! But since that time, I’ve been pretty comfortable writing about it.
I don’t feel as comfortable about what I’m going to share today. I’ve gone back and forth for months about whether or not to publicly reveal another experience in my life. I’m not ashamed of it. But it has been painful for me and until recently has been hard for me to talk about with those outside of my immediate friends. Same-sex attraction is a heavy cross to bear. No doubt. Yet for me it pales in comparison to the crushing weight of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
If you’re not a fan of terms like “disorder” and don’t buy into “all that psycho-babble mumbo-jumbo,” I feel you. Hang tight; I’ll get to that in a minute. I just want to share a bit of my story first.
My parents will tell you that as a small child—even before going through traumas like their divorce and other unfortunate events—I wasn’t quite like other kids. I was nervous. Like, really nervous. My dad recently told me, “You didn’t have the care-free spirit that most children have, and we never really understood why that was.” When difficult circumstances did slither into my little life, my reactions to them were much more intense than that of my siblings (who went through the same stuff). I would frequently get so upset and worked up that I would throw up non-stop and get debilitating migraines. I had a very anxious and emotionally-reactive temperament.
Anxiety accompanied me throughout my adolescence and into my adulthood. I have a tendency to become fixated on and overly concerned about things that don’t warrant the attention and emotional energy I give them. This propensity has progressed in both its constancy and intensity as I’ve gotten older. In my early twenties, I would get “stuck” on something for a couple of weeks but eventually be able to let go of it and move on (until the next sticky thought came; usually a few months later). But over the last three years, this mildly troubling tendency has evolved into a monstrous beast. The things my mind began to get stuck on became increasingly odd and the fears I experienced around those things became increasingly irrational and intense. You’d think that my ability to recognize the unreasonableness of the thoughts would make it all the easier to say, “that’s dumb” and move on. But it didn’t. The extreme fear that was connected to those thoughts made them feel impossible to shake.
The mess really hit the fan when these thoughts and anxieties latched onto God. Have you heard of “scrupulosity”? It’s an excessive, fear-driven concern about spirituality and morality. It can take many shapes. John Bunyan, Martin Luther, and St. Therese of Lisieux all suffered from this (and all learned to fight it by leaning hard into the love and mercy of God despite the presence of their anxieties—more on that later). I had experienced scrupulous tendencies since my conversion, but they began to radically amplify in 2017. I would spend hours upon hours every day evaluating these fearful thoughts and trying to argue them away with logic and reason. I prayed non-stop for God to obliterate my anxieties. I read the Bible for hours and hours, trying to beat my fears to death with God’s promises. I talked with my Christian brothers about the content of my thoughts, hoping that they would say the magic words that would finally relieve me. They kept reassuring me that my thoughts were irrational and my fears unwarranted, and that I could let them go and trust the Lord.
But I couldn’t let them go. I tried every second of every day to trust the Lord (at least I thought I was), but my mind would not stop racing and my heart would not stop trembling. As time went on, the measures I took to alleviate my anxiety became more drastic and unreasonable.
I would call the police to confess to minor crimes I committed a decade ago (until they finally told me to stop calling them!), fearing that if I didn’t do so, I wouldn’t really be repentant about those things and therefore might not have saving faith. The same fears drove me to confess to my friend that one time I yelled at her dog (she laughed), to apologize to my sister for something mean I said to her when I was ten or eleven (she also laughed), and many more things like this concerning past or recent sins (or things I wasn’t sure were sins but might be sins, so I needed to confess just in case). I would mentally review each year of my life since early childhood, searching for anything I might have done that I needed to apologize for.
I would repeatedly call and text a woman with whom I’d gotten into a car wreck to make sure she was still alive. Though she didn’t suffer even a scratch, I couldn’t shake the thought that maybe she had an internal brain injury she didn’t know about, would suddenly drop dead, and it would all be my fault. When she stopped responding to my texts, I searched the internet every day for months to make sure there wasn’t an obituary.
I would check my mail five to ten times a day (even after the mail already came that day), for fear that the IRS or some government agency was going to send me something that stated I was going to go to jail or have to pay thousands of dollars in penalties (though I have no reason to be concerned about either of those things happening!). I would check my tax returns twenty or thirty times before filing them to make sure I filled everything in correctly. I would continue to check them for months after filing them. When filling out other kinds of paperwork, I would check my entries over and over again to verify their correctness—to the point that I started doubting that I actually knew my social security number, street address, etc. I would read each letter or number out loud to myself multiple times to makes sure what I entered was correct and that my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. I would google my address to make sure it was right. I feared that if I made a mistake, something terrible was going to happen.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. I share them to demonstrate that what I’ve been experiencing isn’t the normal kind of “worry” that is common to all people—health worries, financial worries, etc. This unrelenting need to attain certainty that I was an honest and truly repentant person (and therefore truly converted) so consumed me that I was no longer functioning. I couldn’t do my work. I couldn’t socialize. I couldn’t eat.
My friends had encouraged me for a long time to go see a counselor. I refused for a number of reasons. The primary one was my belief that psychology was a psuedo-science. I thought counselors were responsible for cultivating both the self-exalting (“I’m so awesome, I’m not bad, I’m good deep down”) and self-pitying (“poor me, my life is so hard, I don’t deserve this”) mentalities that permeate our culture. And those ideas didn’t jive with my biblical worldview. Humans are sinful people, not awesome people. We aren’t victims, we are perpetrators. Moping around and complaining about my problems to a therapist who was going to tell me how awesome I was just wasn’t something I was down to do. I thought it would be a waste of time and might even be dangerous. What if I started to be influenced by their humanistic ideas? What if I was drawn away from a high view of God and right view of myself and headed toward apostasy? No way. Wasn’t risking that.
But I eventually became so debilitated that I decided it was worth a shot. I made an appointment with a licensed therapist who is a Christian and counsels from a biblical worldview. And I am so glad I made that appointment. It wasn’t at all what I thought it would be. My therapist was kind and compassionate, but she didn’t coddle me. She didn’t tell me how awesome I was, but rather how much God loves me despite my sin. She didn’t encourage self-pity, but rather self-control and self-denial. She wasn’t quick to throw a disorder label on me, either. But it eventually became quite clear that I had OCD.
My diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder came as no surprise to my friends at church who were trained counselors. They had tried to tell me I was dealing with OCD. But it just sounded so ridiculous to me. I wasn’t washing my hands all the time or checking doorknobs. I definitely wasn’t a neat freak! Like most of our society, I deeply misunderstood OCD.
OCD is comprised of both obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are the irrational thoughts that get stuck and are accompanied by severe anxiety. Compulsions are the things a person does (or doesn’t do) to neutralize that anxiety. The sufferer is able to recognize to some degree that the thoughts are irrational and the compulsions are unreasonable, but the intense anxiety compels them to do the compulsions, anyway. There is an endless variety of obsessions and compulsions that people can have. No two sufferers’ obsessions and compulsions are 100% alike.
Personal Examples of Obsessions/Compulsions:
Obsession: If I don’t confess past minor crimes to the police, maybe I’m not submitting to the human authorities God has placed over me and am therefore being disobedient to God, which may be an indicator that I don’t have saving faith.
Compulsion: Call the police and confess to make sure I have saving faith.
Obsession: If I don’t confess sins (or perceived sins) that didn’t cause any harm or loss to anyone, maybe I’m not really an honest or loving person. And maybe that’s evidence of an unregenerate heart.
Compulsion: Confess to parties I’ve sinned against (or think I might have sinned against), even if it was minor and that person suffered no harm or loss, to make sure I don’t have an unregenerate heart.
Obsession: I’m going to make a paperwork mistake and something terrible is going to happen to me as a result.
Compulsion: Check over it dozens of times, read numbers and letters out loud to myself, compare to previously filled-in forms or identification cards to make sure my social security number and address really are what I think they are—all to make sure nothing bad happens.
Obsession: Though I realize this thought is irrational, if I don’t act according to it, maybe I’ll be acting contrary to my conscience and be sinning against God.
Compulsion: Do the irrational thing to make sure I’m not sinning against God.
I understand many people have trouble with the concepts of “disorders” and “mental illnesses” and aren’t comfortable with clinical language. That’s okay. I tell those people, “You don’t have to believe I have a disorder, just know that the symptoms described in this supposed disorder are the symptoms I experience.” Having a name to put to the symptoms is what’s been massively helpful to me. Rather than it being this abstract, uncontained thing inside of myself that I can’t wrap my mind around, I view it as OCD–something that isn’t me and isn’t the Spirit of God but rather a collection of symptoms fueled by both the chemistry in my brain and my behaviors.
That’s right—my behaviors. There is an element of OCD that is outside of my control and more than likely biological/hereditary. But the degree to which it progresses and consumes me is largely within my control. The gas that feeds the fire of OCD are the compulsions, the things that I choose to do. When I respond to the thoughts by ruminating, confessing, checking—or even by repeatedly praying and reciting bible verses solely to make the thoughts go away—I’m validating the importance of the thoughts. I’m telling my brain, “Oh wow, thanks for sending me that signal; it’s probably a real danger that I need to attend to!” So my brain responds by continuing to send “danger! danger!” signals so that I will act to protect or preserve myself. When anxiety functions property, it is a very good thing. If you’re getting too close to the edge of a cliff or encounter a bear in the woods or see your toddler wander into the street, your brain sends you a signal—“danger! danger!”—and a surge of anxiety so that you will act to neutralize the threat. However, the brain of an OCD sufferer sends danger signals when there is no danger. It tells you something is a threat when it’s not a threat. And the more an OCD sufferer validates the false signals by acting according to them (doing compulsions), the more frequent and powerfully those signals will fire.
This is what I didn’t understand before I started going to counseling and doing my own psycho-education. I believed the way to get the thoughts out of my head was to “do the right thing” by confessing, praying, reciting Bible verses, and being responsible by checking to make sure I did something correctly. But as I continued to do these things and act according to what I thought was my conscience (it wasn’t), my thoughts became more irrational and my anxiety grew worse. This frustrated the crap out of me. I was doing the hard work of “doing the right things”! Doing them made me miserable and embarrassed me, but I did them anyway because I thought by doing them I was being godly and obedient.
But in reality, I wasn’t being godly or obedient. I was performing fear-driven rituals to try to make myself feel better. Real godliness and obedience in this situation was to say to myself, “I know these obsessions and compulsions are irrational. I also know God is not irrational but is a God of peace who guides his children in ways that are clear and not characterized by debilitating fear. Therefore, I am not going to act according to these thoughts, no matter how much anxiety they cause me.”
This was exactly the conclusion to which my counseling and psycho-education led me. Psychologists have learned that the behavioral component of OCD is the most important and powerful part. The more you act in response to your anxious thoughts, the worse the anxiety becomes. But if you act according to what you know is true (that these thoughts aren’t worthy of your attention and you don’t need to attend to them) rather than to what your misfiring brain is telling you, your symptoms will decrease in frequency and intensity. They may not go away completely, but they will become more manageable.
What contemporary psychology has recently discovered about effectively treating OCD is essentially what the Bible prescribes: self-control and self-denial. The Scriptures exhort us over and over to rule our minds and bodies, to resist the thoughts that are contrary to the knowledge of God, and to walk according to faith—not according to fear, irrational thoughts, lust, greed, anger, etc. Exercising self-control when it comes to OCD is not easy. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a breeze or that all a person needs to do is read the Bible and pray. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever dealt with in my life, and I’ve dealt with a lot of hard things. But thankfully, God has given us special graces to aid us, like godly counselors . . . and even medicine.
Over the years, I have been advised by people I trust to explore the possibility of medication. But I refused. I thought if I took meds I would be shutting down things in my heart that I need to work through. I was also afraid that they would change my personality, make me a zombie, and make me apathetic toward the Lord. I didn’t want to “numb” myself. However, I’ve been on Sertraline (Zoloft) for three months now, and I can joyously say that my perception about medicine was totally wrong.
Do I still think our culture is over-medicated? Absolutely. I believe there are many people on meds that don’t need to be—they just need to deal with their junk. But there are also a lot of people who are dealing with their junk and wholeheartedly seeking the Lord who could greatly benefit from an SSRI, SNRI, or other medication. Sertraline has helped me tremendously. It doesn’t make my obsessive thoughts or anxiety go away completely. But it does put me in a more clear-headed frame of mind so that I can more effectively resist the thoughts and exercise faith in the God who loves me.
I know this blog post is really long. I’m not sorry! 🙂 I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this and related things in the months and years to come (I’m finishing my bachelors in psychology then pursuing my masters in Christian Counseling at a local seminary). But today I just want to publicly give thanks to God for the gifts of counseling and medication. I never dreamed these would be places where I encountered God’s goodness and grace, but they have been. They so have been. I’m slowly learning that God won’t be boxed into whatever a faith tradition or theologian or preacher says about him and the ways in which he works (though God never acts contrary to what’s revealed in the Bible). God can bless his people through ordinary, so-called “secular” means like therapy and medicine. There are many Christians who despise psychology, criticize therapy, and condemn the use of medication. I used to be among them! But I think a little education about mental health would shift many of these folks’ perspectives. I also believe the more openly sufferers in the Church talk about their struggles, the more opportunities there will be for skeptics in Church to grow in their understanding of mental health. That’s why I’m writing this post today.
If you’re struggling with the kinds of things I’ve described here and have been hesitant to see a counselor, I hope that you’ll give it a shot. It may take some time to find the right fit (not all counselors are good counselors), but there are plenty out there who are wise and godly. And counseling isn’t a forever thing for most people. I “graduated” from therapy after six months of weekly sessions. Also, I’m not a therapist or medical doctor and this is definitely not medical advice, but in my humble opinion I think it’s a good idea to try therapy before trying medication. See first how effectively you can fight without medicine. I didn’t start Sertraline until months after I began “doing the work” of trying to exercise control over my anxiety and OCD. There is no magic pill that will make all your mental and emotional struggles go away. But if you’re willing to dig your heels in and fight your anxiety by chasing after a God who wants you to trust him completely, it can be a great aid in that endeavor.
Nothing gut-punches the soul of a Christian like a willful sin. I know all sins are willful to some degree. But there are those that are willful, and those that are really, really willful. The shame that comes rolling into your conscience after you cuss at a person who cuts you off in traffic doesn’t feel quite as gut-punchy as that which comes after you’ve watched porn or gotten drunk. Why? Because speaking improperly during a moment of fearful rage is more spontaneous than it is willful. Is it bad that was the first thing to come out of your mouth? Yes. But did you say to yourself when you got into your car that morning, “If someone cuts me off in traffic, I’m definitely going to drop the F-bomb on ‘em”? No (at least I hope not). In the heat of the moment, without much thought, it just came flying out of your not-so-sanctified mouth.
But committing the other sins I mentioned requires a series of willful decisions to be made. You don’t feel tempted to watch porn and then do it within less than a second. You have to decide to get alone by yourself, open your browser, type in that web address, and click that video (and the next one, and the next one, and the next one). You don’t feel tempted to get drunk and then—whazam!— you’re drunk. You have to decide to get dressed, order an Uber, walk into the bar, and order that drink (and the next one, and the next one, and the next one). At any point in the sequence of decisions, you can say, “no, I’m not doing this” or “no, I’m not going take this any further.” You have so many chances to stop and turn back.
Therefore, if you end up watching porn or getting drunk, you said a whole bunch of yeses to get there. And if you’re a Christian, this knowledge hurts worse than any hangover headache. Your heart sinks lower and your eyes grow wetter as you ask yourself why you chose to do this sin again, remember all the points at which you could have stopped but stubbornly refused, and mourn that you dishonored and grieved the God who gave his life for you. And don’t let any well-intentioned person try to tell you, “Oh, don’t beat yourself up, baby”—it is good and right that you feel this way! Grief is 100% appropriate.
However, the appropriate kind of grief, which the Bible calls godly grief, doesn’t stall out but instead “produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10). When we commit a sin—however heinous and grievous that sin might be—it isn’t pious to wallow in shame and despondency. That’s called worldly grief, and it leads not to salvation but to the debilitation and destruction of faith. God may allow a dark cloud of painful emotions to settle over you for a little while—a few hours, a day, a week. He disciplines those whom he loves. But the God of the Bible is not one to smack you around with his belt day after day for the sin you committed last month or last year or in 1996.
No, he’s one to speak gracious words of forgiveness and hope:
“Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself” (1 Samuel 12:20-22).
God’s desire is not that you’d try to feel as terrible as you can for as long as you can after every wicked thing you do. Your prolonged emotional suffering won’t make you any cleaner. The blood of Christ alone makes you clean. God’s desire is that you’d confess your sin, appropriately grieve your sin, trust him to be as gracious as he says he is, and keep following Jesus.
So by all means, feel the shame. Feel the regret. But then turn your eyes away from yourself, trust God to forgive you (yet again!), and get back up.
“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:11-13).
I know God is able to do great things for people. He can shatter the chains that bind us to sin. He can hold us steady through every wave of heartache or adversity that comes crashing over our lives. He can empower us to subdue every licentious, legalistic, apathetic, or anxious attitude in our flesh that seeks to handicap our faith and render us useless, fruitless people. God “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think . . .” (Ephesians 3:20).
Does he actually want to, though?
I don’t question God’s ability. The immeasurable greatness of his power is a “duh, of course” in my book. But when it comes to his willingness to wield his power for my personal good—well, that’s a whole different animal. Just because God can do a certain thing for me doesn’t necessarily mean he will do that thing for me. His power isn’t bound or dictated by my wants and desires. Prayer isn’t some transaction-like system in which I “place an order” and he has to prepare it for me just as I ask. God is a person, not a vending machine. “He does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3; emphasis mine).
So, while I believe God has the ability sustain me in or deliver me out of a circumstantial difficulty, battle with temptation, mental anguish, or other undesirable condition, I’m not very encouraged unless I also believe he wants to sustain or deliver me. The question my insecure heart needs re-answered every morning as soon as my eyes pop open is not, “Can he?” but, “Will he?”
Will he keep me trusting in Christ today?
Will he give me strength to resist destructive sins today?
Will he enable me to withstand the attacks of the Evil One today?
Will he strengthen me to exercise control over my anxious thoughts today?
And every morning, after I pour myself cup of thick black coffee and open the Bible, the Spirit of God whispers the same answer: “YES.” Whether I open to the Prophets, the Gospels, the Psalms, the Epistles, the Pentateuch, or to anywhere else in the inspired Scriptures, I always see portrayed an all-powerful God who delights so much in his people that it actually makes him happy to bless them!
“I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. . . I will rejoice in doing them good.” (Jeremiah 32:40-41)
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good . . . He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:28, 32)
“The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17)
“. . . the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me (Jesus) and have believed that I came from God.” (John 16:27)
“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11)
What an awesome God we have. Not merely because of the magnitude of his power, but also because of his tender disposition toward sinners like us! Our hearts and lives are riddled with sin that dishonors him. We deserve nothing but his anger. And how faithfully my conscience reminds me of this! My inner voice relentlessly points out my sin—with the help of Satan, I’m sure—especially when my heart begins to swell with joy at the thought of God’s grace. “Yeah, God is good . . . but you’re bad, remember? God has no obligation to be good to guilty people like you.”
But praise God for his verdict that silences every accusation (even those we bring against ourselves)! “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Romans 8:33-34; emphasis mine). You and I are very sinful people. This is tragic and true. But if we believe the gospel, we are sinful people for whom Jesus died and whom God has justified! And when we trusted in Christ, God gave us the right to become his children (John 1:12)—the right to feel assured that he forgives us completely, loves us immensely, and delights to bless us with every good gift.
I know there are people out there who take these biblical truths and prosperity-gospelize them into something they aren’t. When the Bible says God wants to bless us and work for our good, it doesn’t mean that he builds us big houses or fattens our bank accounts. Nor does it mean he rescues us from every financial woe or health crisis or relational trouble. Sometimes he works for our good by delivering us from a trial, and sometimes he works for our good by sustaining us in a trial. God doesn’t always take the pain away—but where he allows pain to persist in our lives, he always gives us power to persevere through it with joy.
In whatever form grace comes to us, it always comes as a gift from a loving Father who enjoys providing for us everything we truly need—namely, himself. And this is what God’s people want the most anyway, right? I usually don’t lay awake at night feeling afraid of poverty or illness. I usually lay awake at night feeling afraid that God might one day withdraw from me, cease to satisfy me with his love, or quit giving me the strength I need to keep trusting Jesus. It’s these kinds of fears that our heavenly Father longs to crush today. He wants me to know, and you to know, that he will always give us everything we need. It really is his pleasure.
When I think about God, I tend to think of him first and foremost as Master and King. I think about his right to command my obedience, and I think about my obligation to obey his commands. I know, of course, that Jesus obeyed God perfectly on my behalf and has clothed me with his righteousness. But I also know that imputed righteousness always produces personal righteousness. I realize that faith in Jesus is the only way to be saved. But I also realize that faith without works is dead. Obedience matters. Works matter. God is still Master and King—even for Christians, like me.
But is this primarily who God is for Christians, like me? When he looks upon those who hope in Jesus, does he feel merely what a king might feel toward his subjects? The Bible tells us that God takes pleasure in his people (Ps. 149:4). He loves them with great love (Eph. 2:4). He rejoices over them with loud singing (Zeph. 3:17). He delights to do them good (Jer. 32:41). He cares for them (1 Pet. 5:7). Are these the ways that a master relates to his servants? No! These are ways that a father relates to his children!
God is more than our Master. He is more than our King. He is, above all other titles and roles, our Father.
When you struggle like I do to really feel this truth—that God’s primary disposition toward you is not masterly or kingly but fatherly—it can also be difficult to believe that the salvation he offers you is as free and complete as it actually is. A King would never do for his (disloyal!) subjects what God has done for you in Jesus. A Master would never suffer for his (traitorous!) servants to the extent that the triune God has suffered for you. “It’s too good to be true,” you think to yourself, even if subconsciously. You profess with your mouth that you are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And part of you really does believe this! But within your anxious heart still exists the lie that you need to work your way into God’s acceptance and love.
When you read the Bible, you tend to glance over the indicatives (or truths) of the gospel—that you are 100% accepted and loved because of what Christ has already done for you—and fixate on the imperatives (or commands) of the gospel—that you should obey, kill sin, live a life worthy of the gospel, etc. Though a deep belief in the gospel indicatives is supposed to be the power by which you perform the gospel imperatives, you come at it all backwards. Instead of putting on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience because you are already chosen, holy, and beloved (Col. 3:12), you labor to put on these things so that you will be chosen, holy, and beloved. Instead of striving for holiness because you are already accepted, you strive for holiness to be accepted. Your “obedience” is not a gratitude-driven response to God’s love for you in Christ, like it should be. It’s your attempt to earn his acceptance and love. You, like the believers in the Galatian church, are trying to justify yourself.
I keep using the pronoun “you,” but believe me when I say that I am preaching to myself! For months now my heart has been tortured by fear that God’s acceptance of me is still up in the air. I’ve felt like I won’t know for sure I’m forgiven and loved until I prove to myself (and to him) that my faith is genuine. So, I’ve been laboring and striving and toiling for months to grasp a greater sense of assurance that I am safe in the love of Christ. I’ve been doing “good works” that appear “noble” and “holy” on the surface, but they haven’t been propelled by love for God and gratitude for his grace. I’ve been driven by nothing but debilitating fear and a lack of trust that his gospel is for me, personally. My works-based pursuit of God’s love has left me spiritually depleted and mentally frayed.
But praise God that his love for me is sure even when I’m uncertain of it! Though he allows me at times to stray from the gospel in fear and unbelief, and though he allows Satan to play whatever role he has in all this mess, God is always faithful to woo me back to the rest and freedom he’s given me in Jesus. Over these last few weeks, he has kindly reminded me that:
He loves me not because of anything in me or any decision I’ve made, but solely because he chooses to love me.
He predestined, called, and justified me not because of anything I did or anything he foreknew I would do, but solely according to his sovereign mercy—even my faith is a gift.
The obedience he calls me to is birthed not out of an anxious desire to be accepted by him but out of a deep awareness that I am already accepted in Christ.
The obedience he calls me to is not an endeavor to earn his favor but the inevitable outflow of realizing that I already have his favor in Christ.
The obedience he calls me to is not fueled by angst and dread of his judgment but by gratitude for his great mercy and immeasurable love toward me in Christ.
I know it’s the time of year when lot of people make resolutions to do great things. But my chief resolve for 2018 is to believe great things—the great things of the extraordinary but completely true and trustworthy gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’” – John 6:28-29
“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins . . . There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.” – 1 John 4:9-10,18-19
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” – Isaiah 26:3
We all long and hope for peace. Some of us are single and hope that when we finally marry, we will feel whole. Some of us have wayward children and hope that when they finally turn to the Lord, we will be at ease. Some of us are in financial straits and hope that when our monetary lack is resolved, our souls will find rest. Whatever the undesirable circumstances are that disturb us, we tend to set our hope for peace fully on the day that those troubles are finally eliminated.
However, the Scriptures teach us that our difficulties do not need to dissolve in order for us to experience the tranquility we desire. We can have peace that surpasses understanding (Philippians 4:7) in the midst of our discomforts and disappointments. How so? By having a mind that is stayed on God (Isaiah 26:3)! Conscious fixation on our sovereign, gracious, and loving Lord is the only effective remedy for a troubled heart.
“Yeah, yeah—I know. I see this truth in the Bible, too. But I just can’t seem to focus on him! I really do try. But I can’t stop thinking about my problems!” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this—or how many times I myself have thought it! It can often feel impossible to pull the attention of our weak minds away from our issues and set our gaze “on things that are above” (Colossians 3:2). However, verses like Isaiah 26:3 and Colossians 3:2 would not be in the Bible if such a feat were impossible. We can fix our eyes on God. We can direct our thoughts to his reality, his sovereignty, his promises, and his great love for us in Christ.
Notice the last clause in Isaiah 26:3: “because he trusts in you.” These five little words are of massive importance. What is it that enables us to turn our focus away from the things that trouble us and set it on the One who can keep us in perfect peace? Trust! Trust in God, or faith in God, empowers our feeble minds to forsake their fixation on our circumstantial ills and focus instead on the God who loves us and is in absolute control of the things that burden us.
There is a reason we are so easily and continuously anxious about our undesirable circumstances. Clearly, our hearts struggle to believe that we have a sovereign and attentive God who truly cares for us (1 Peter 5:7)! We forget that he is a constant shield around us (Psalm 3:3), that he orders our steps (Proverbs 20:24), and that all of our days were written in his book before we were even born (Psalm 139:16). We are so prone to feel like we are at the mercy of our circumstances rather than under the never-ending mercy of a God who is eagerly working all things for our greatest good (Romans 8:28).
If your belief in these biblical truths is weak, and you therefore find yourself unable to fix your mind on the God who is aware and in control of the things that concern you, don’t lose hope. You’re in good company—I’ve been struggling for the last six months to believe these things and rest peacefully in the love and sovereignty of God. However, when you and I find ourselves barely believing God’s word, we need to consume it all the more! If “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Hebrews 10:17), then we must set his inspired words in front of us so that the Spirit can strengthen our ability to believe them.
So if you’re in a season in which you’re struggling to trust God (like I am), there is a solution: open your Bible. Read it and meditate on the absolute truths within it every chance you get. The Spirit will gradually soften your heart as you do. And as he works his faith-enabling power within you day-by-day, you will find yourself increasingly able to set your thoughts on the sovereign, loving, and trustworthy God who desires and is able to keep you in perfect peace.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).