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The Story: A new survey finds that a majority of Americans personally believe in the existence of the devil and believe that demons can possess humans.
The Background: The latest YouGov research has found that more than half of all Americans (57%) believe in the existence of the devil and a slight majority (51%) believe in possession by evil spirits. Regardless of religious identity levels of belief top 50%, except for Jews, who theologically reject the idea of a sentient Satan. "Born-again" Christians are the most likely to both believe in the devil (86%) and possession (72%).
The Takeaways: Some of the more interesting findings from the survey include:
• Women are more likely than men to believe in the devil (61% to 53%) and demon possession (54% to 49%).
• A majority of all age groups believe the devil exists, with 45-64 year olds having the highest percentage of believers (62%) and the 30-44 range having the highest percentage of skeptics (30%).
• Republicans are more likely to believe in the devil than are Democrats (65% to 55%)
• Black (72%) and Hispanic (60%) Americans are more likely than whites (54%) to believe Satan is real.
• The college educated and those with less than a high school education are least likely to believe (48% and 49%) while high school grads, those with some college, and post graduates are most likely to believe (63%, 58%, and 51%).
• Belief is highest in the South (64%) and Midwest (56%).
• "Born again" Christians, Protestants, and Catholics are most likely to believe the devil exists (86%, 70%, and 66%) and demon possession is possible (72%, 59%, and 59%), while Jewish and Muslim Americans are the least likely religious groups to believe Satan is real (17% and 25%). Muslims are more likely to believe someone can be possessed an evil spirit (49%) than believe in the devil.
• Few Americans believe that possession occurs "very frequently" (6%) or "frequently" (9%). The exception is Muslim Americans, 60% of whom believe demon possession occurs frequently.
Two months into my freshmen year of college, I was forced to admit something had gone terribly wrong with the way I related to food. I'd gained 30 pounds in that short time, double the stereotypical "Freshman 15" some students gain over the course of an entire school year. Deep down I knew my weight gain wasn't only the result of unhealthy cafeteria food or insufficient exercise. I was eating constantly and compulsively for reasons I didn't understand—and I couldn't stop. I felt completely condemned and paralyzed with embarrassment, which I knew wasn't helpful or biblical, but I had no idea how to think otherwise. I was stuck.
I spent the next 20 years seeking to understand a biblical view of my body and of eating, as well as specifically examining how I'd ended up so trapped and confused. I struggled, prayed, immersed myself in Scripture, and repented. I sought out wise counselors, deep community, and biblical resources. I tried all kinds of practical strategies with varying degrees of success. I experienced seasons of freedom and moments of profound despair. I wondered if lasting freedom was even a realistic possibility.
And then, a few years ago, I slowly began to realize my struggle with food had gradually lessened and was no longer such an all-consuming battle. My ups and downs leveled out. Food didn't consume my thinking, my weight was stable and healthy, and I no longer viewed myself with shame and contempt. I certainly wasn't perfect, but I was different. The little victories had added up, and the stretches of freedom had grown longer and deeper. Over time, I'd developed completely different beliefs and habits. I was changed from the inside out. It wasn't a flashy, overnight turnaround, but it was definitely a miracle.
What I know for sure is that these changes didn't happen because I had extraordinary willpower or because I finally found a diet fad that magically worked for me. I am different today only because of God's transforming power in my life. Still, it took a long time for me see any connection between the gospel and my struggles in this area. In hindsight, however, it's unmistakably clear that these truths were foundational to my transformation and resulting freedom.Opportunity and Invitation to Experience Grace
In retrospect, I'm tremendously grateful for my struggles with food and body image because God, in his great mercy, used them to bring me to the end of myself. I was a high-achieving, performance-driven young woman who hadn't faced many challenges I couldn't figure out how to overcome in my own strength. I firmly believed my salvation was solely based on Christ's perfect life and death on my behalf. But my inability to stop destroying myself with food brought my desperate sinful state into much clearer focus. It was wildly uncomfortable, and I would have done anything at the time to fix myself.
Thank God I couldn't! The moments when we run into the brick walls of our own failure and inadequacy are not, as we so often believe, opportunities to prove our own sufficiency. They are gracious chances to experience strength, refuge, and power immeasurably beyond what we could ever provide for ourselves.Not Changed by Modifying Behavior
I didn't struggle with food because I simply needed more information about healthy eating. I was an expert at counting calories, measuring portion sizes, and making healthy choices. And I didn't struggle with my weight because I was lazy or uninformed about exercise. At my heaviest weight, I was exercising rigorously on a daily basis. I overate to escape from the tremendous pressure I felt to perform and please in order to have the approval of others. I overate because I believed I needed the comfort of food in times of stress, sadness, or anxiety.
Only when I was willing to look deeply at the root causes of my disordered eating and honestly confess my sin and unbelief did anything start to change. Until then, I was stuck in the garden of my heart, pulling out the same weeds day after day and getting nowhere. Pulling weeds is important, but it's only one part of growing a beautiful garden. I didn't just need to change a few habits or drop a few pounds; my belief system needed to be uprooted and replanted with biblical truth. Responsible stewardship of our physical bodies is clearly biblical, but trying to achieve this goal by focusing solely on changing outward habits doesn't work for those living from a belief system that opposes the transforming truth of Scripture. The greatest need of a person caught in a trap is rescue, not a strategy for trap-management.Christ Alone Brings Freedom and Contentment
It was a humbling day when I realized that, while I believed the previous statement in theory, my life told a different story. We're all tempted in one way or another to justify ourselves apart from Christ, whether with good behavior, success in a certain area, or consistency in meeting a particular standard. Though I never would have said it so blatantly, I functionally believed that in addition to being loved and accepted in Christ, I had to achieve mastery over food and my physical body in order to experience joy or peace. Scripture is clear that food and our bodies are gifts, but it's impossible to view them this way when we turn them into rulers we constantly measure ourselves against. I began to understand how I pridefully acted as though Christ's work wasn't really sufficient; that I had to add something of my own in order for it to be enough. When I finally began consistently resting in the reality that I truly had nothing to earn and nothing to prove, miraculously, food began to lose its power, and my body became a gift for which I was truly thankful.
As I've shared my story with others, I've been both comforted and also concerned by the reality that my struggles in these areas aren't unusual or uncommon. Battles with food and body image manifest themselves in a wide variety of ways. They are a significant problem the body of Christ must carefully and lovingly address. My hope is that we won't only point people to important practical strategies for change, but that the deep truths of the gospel will serve as a foundation for all of our efforts.
For those who seek lasting change and freedom, there is no other option.
The last few years, I've been reading and writing on ecclesiology. It's a funny topic, one capable of being at one moment dull, at the next incendiary. Plenty of books merely re-hash standard material and parse terms ever more finely. If you're like me, your eyes glaze over when discussions of the church devolve into turf wars, sorting out denominational distinctives or establishing some kind of sanctified ecclesial edition of Robert's Rules of Order.
To say "church" ought not conjure images of stuffy bureaucracy but instead call to mind the God who called a nothing people to himself, gathered them around his Son, filled them with his Spirit, and sent them to proclaim his name among the nations. The best stuff in ecclesiology situates the church in the economy of redemption, and sees it for what it is—the Spirit-filled sign, foretaste, and entry point into God's kingdom come in Jesus.
So in that spirit, here is an idiosyncratic list, to be sure, not any kind of summative list of the greatest ecclesiological texts, but one that might suggest satisfying reading. The list is in alphabetical order according to author.
William J. Abraham, The Logic of Renewal. Eerdmans, 2003. 182 pages.
Abraham surveys a fascinatingly diverse set of programs for renewal in the last half-century, arguing against all of them that the church's renewal is not a matter of epistemological adjustment but of return to the means of grace. If he unnecessarily pits these two against one another, his diagnostic of the problem (over-intellectualization) and prescription of a remedy (a patient waiting in the means of grace the Lord has appointed) is exactly right.
Karl Barth, Ad Limina Apostolorum: An Appraisal of Vatican II. St Andrew, 1969. 80 pages.
Barth had been invited to observe Vatican II, but was prevented by illness. After a summer of careful study, he spent a week in Rome talking through a series of clarifying and critical questions. Here we see a sympathetic Protestant who is hopeful, curious, fraternal, and always incisive. The council called for aggiornamento, "updating" or "accommodation," and Barth anticipated the rancorous debate over its meaning by asking, "'Accommodation' to what?" Is this about the church's renewal in light of its founding revelation, or in light of the modern world?
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Book IV. Westminster John Knox, 1559 translation edition, 1960. 1,800 pages.
Lots of polemic here, but also some of the richest reflections on the nature of the church in light of Scripture and the work of the Spirit. Ever. Calvin may be the best when it comes to seeing the church in light of pneumatology. Turns out the Spirit is the best solution to the besetting ecclesiological temptations to conflate or divide Christ and the church. Never is this solution more fruitfully seen than in Calvin's treatment of the Lord's Supper, where he turns the question of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist on its head. He suggests that the "problem" is not how to make Jesus present to us but how to make us present to him, something the Spirit does by uniting us to our ascended Lord seated at the right hand of the Father.
Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony. Abingdon, 1989. 175 pages.
In all their work, but never more programmatically than here, Hauerwas and Willimon challenge Christians to consider our citizenship in heaven and its consequences for our life on earth. The shortness and sharpness of the book might incline some to dismiss it as a prophetic rant. I imagine Israel had good reasons for turning a deaf ear to its prophets, too.
Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus' Vision for Authentic Christian Community. B&H Academic, 2009. 240 pages.
Hellerman takes Jesus at his word, insisting that the church is an alternate kinship group that trumps all other loyalties. This is a hard word, a good word, and an eminently livable word. The more confused the world becomes about singeless, marriage, and family, the more important it will be to live out our adoption in Christ and all its implications for life together.
Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament. Westminster John Knox, 2004. 312 pages.
A wonderful book that patiently and reasonably explores the New Testament's various images for the church and also the way that metaphors implicate themselves in our lives. Avery Dulles's "models" approach to the church is helpful. But even more useful, and biblically grounding, is Minear's tour through ecclesial images and his conviction that the profound mystery of the church calls for a "kaleidoscopic" view.
The best, newest, freshest things being said about the church and the gospel today were mostly said better, with more nuance and more faithfulness to the gospel by Lesslie Newbigin a quarter century (or more) ago. That rare scholar whose prose is accessible and footnotes invisible, but who crystallizes and clarifies while never dumbing down, Newbigin integrates the central insights of others (Barth on election, Polanyi on the personal investment of knowledge) with his experience as a missionary bishop in a still-going ecumenical experiment, the Church of South India.
R. R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity. Brazos, 2002. 208 pages.
Reno argues that the divided church is in ruins and that—despite the temptation to run for the hills—the only faithful place to live is right in the ruins, singing a song of lament. He calls readers to forsake the comfort of distance for a cruciform intimacy with God's church in all its imperfection and sin. For people quick to move from church to church, his jeremiad is good, strong medicine.
Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom and Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism.
Schmemann exemplifies the wedding of liturgy and theology and the ancient maxim that the rule of prayer is the rule of belief. Like Henri de Lubac did for Roman Catholicism, Schmemann reminded Eastern Orthodoxy that the sacraments cannot and should not be reduced to a magic moment (say, the transformation of the elements) or isolated from the broader life of the church.
John Webster, 'On Evangelical Ecclesiology,' Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II. Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2005. 242 pages.
It takes an Anglican to argue so vigorously that ecclesiology needs to go on a diet. At every point, Webster cautions against bloated ecclesiologies that ask the church to be and do what only Christ can be and do. Ecclesiocentrism can only be idolatry. Webster doubles down on Barth's account of witness and argues for an ecclesial "rhetoric of indication," in which the church ceaselessly points away from itself to Christ.
I've never fought in a war, but I've read my share of war stories, watched my share of war documentaries, and visited my share of war memorials. Every war had some objective, some overriding purpose that drove men to sacrifice their lives.
Spiritual warfare is no different. What is the overriding goal of spiritual warfare? To plunder the enemy. Spiritual warfare is about rescuing sinners enslaved to Satan and his kingdom. It's about conversion—the transfer of precious souls from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God's beloved Son (Col. 1:13-15).
Plundering Satan's kingdom is the mission of the church and of the church planter. When Jesus charged the apostles to "make disciples of all the nations," they responded by preaching the gospel and planting churches, plundering the enemy's kingdom one soul (or 3,000) at a time (Acts 2:40-47). And we'll be plundering our enemy until Christ returns, when converts from every tribe and tongue and people and nation will worship the Lamb forever and ever.
Church Planting and False Conversions
If church planting is to be ultimately about conversion, church planters must be more than good neighbors. We must be faithful gospel heralds and competent soul physicians.
Most of you reading this article have already embraced the need for gospel clarity. But why all this talk about conversion? Isn't conversion a matter between the individual and God? Don't we believe that, once saved, always saved? Will not God save his elect?
Yes, yes, and of course, yes. And yet, Jesus and the apostles spoke often about true conversion. They knew what was at stake, and they wanted their listeners to be clear. They warned the people against false faith—unfruitful faith (Mark 4:1-20), spurious faith (John 8:30-58), vain faith (1 Cor. 15:1-4), devil faith (James 2:14-26). They warned them not to be deceived—about themselves, or about anyone else (see Gal. 5:19-24, 1 Cor. 6:9-10, 1 John 3:4-10). And then there's that most haunting warning, in Matthew 7:21-23:
Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons, and in your name perform many miracles?" And then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from me you who practice lawlessness."
Church Planters as Soul Physicians
Church planters must be clear on the nature of conversion because false conversions abound, and precious, eternal souls are at stake. Jonathan Edwards was right when he said there is no question of greater importance to mankind. And, for pastors and church planters, the question takes on particular importance, as they will one day give an account for the souls in their flock (Heb. 13:17).
That's why The Gospel Coalition, 9Marks, Sovereign Grace Ministries, and The NETS Institute for Church Planting are joining forces in Boston this fall for a TGC regional conference called Plant New England. On October 14 and 15, churches, church planters, pastors, and lay people from throughout New England will gather to become better plunderers, better soul physicians. We'll be learning from men like Mark Dever, Stephen Um, Jim Hamilton, Collin Hansen, and Owen Strachan. And our theme? True Conversion: Church Planters as Soul Physicians.
The battle rages on, but the objective remains unchanged: rescuing precious souls from the kingdom of darkness. Will you pray for us as we become better warriors for the soul? And won't you join us for Plant New England?
Books like Revolution in World Missions and When Helping Hurts have many youth pastors and church leaders ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater of short-term trips. We calculate the $3,000 it costs to send a student to Honduras for a week and start to squirm thinking about all the good we could do with those funds in Honduras—if only the student stayed home.
I'm an advocate for wise stewardship and for doing away with our old colonial approach to missionary efforts. But I'm also concerned youth are getting left out of opportunities to be involved in the global church. Isn't there a place for students in this new paradigm of sustainability?
Of course, I understand why people balk at the traditional model of youth service trips, which usually goes something like this:
Spend a week in West Virginia or Mexico building a house and maybe running vacation Bible school for some local kids. Leave at the end of the week with lots of teary-eyed students, never to return. Repeat next year—just in a sexier location to make sure even more students will participate.
It isn't hard to see that this model is self-focused and unproductive.
Still, there are some good reasons why our church has opted to continue with our short-term mission trip program.
Aside from my suspicion that many who give to fund a student's trip wouldn't give to local and global missions otherwise, let me offer some of the less pragmatic reasons you shouldn't cancel next year's trip.Short-Term Mission Trips Can Teach Sustainability and Partnerships
I'm grateful to belong to a church body that emphasizes church empowerment in our mission strategy. Sometimes we have healthy dialogue and even disagreement about the usefulness of short-term missions. But who says students can't participate meaningfully in the same kind of church empowerment we champion in our overall global missions strategy? I've seen firsthand that students can be the catalyst of these types of relationships, and when it happens, it's beautiful.
This past year, for example, one of my students focused his year-long senior project on the Haitian church with whom we partner in Nassau, Bahamas. He worked with community leaders to create a sustainable garden providing meals for hungry families in the neighborhood surrounding the church. He, another student, and I traveled to Nassau this spring, along with two of our pastors, to conduct a children's ministry workshop that allowed us to hand off some of the ministry we love to the faithful believers who live there year-round. When I returned with a team of 18 juniors and seniors this summer, they selflessly trained and encouraged our Haitian friends.Short-Term Mission Trips Produce Long-Term Missionaries
Go ahead—ask the missionaries you know how God called them to the mission field. I have yet to meet a cross-cultural missionary who didn't first participate in a short-term trip. Most of the people we know who participate in missions by praying, giving, or going first served on short-term trips.
One girl in our church has become something of a poster child for what I hope students will take away from their trips. When I expressed disappointment that she couldn't join us again on a trip the summer after graduation, she reassured me it was okay since she'd gotten what she was supposed to from the experience. She said her task now is to create Christ-honoring change in the world through advocacy and fundraising. Wow. Talk about outgrowing her teacher! She put me to shame in her understanding of short-term missions. Currently, she's raising money for a Haitian orphanage struggling to continue its gospel ministry to kids outside Port Au Prince. All of this advocacy she relates back to her experiences on short-term trips.Short-Term Mission Trips Create Unstoppable Kids
A South African friend once asked me, "How do we raise up kids who are unstoppable?" He recounted the days of his own youth during and just after apartheid. He and his friends had been zealous for the Lord, and he didn't see a parallel here in the United States. That question has spurred me on in ministry, and through experiences with students I've found pieces of the answer.
Take, for example, my students who got involved with special-needs peers at their public high school as a result of serving at a Joni and Friends Family Retreat. They started a club that gives such students an opportunity to participate in social activities after school. A group of students who served with Hurricane Sandy relief efforts in New Jersey want to know where they can get involved with a soup kitchen in our own city. Another student is compiling an anthology of works by the Nassau team to raise awareness about the poverty of our Haitian friends. And some students from the same group are embarking on an experiment to "give more, spend less" in order to raise money for specific needs in the Haitian community.
Students are learning the all-sufficiency of Christ as they embark on adventures naturally beyond them. They are recognizing their role in the global church. They are becoming unstoppable.
We're still learning how to do this work cost-effectively in the name of wise stewardship. In a subsequent article, I'll share what we've learned about implementing a multi-trip model that removes emphasis from exciting travel destinations and puts it back on partnership.
One of the most wonderful mysteries in the universe is that prayer changes things. God has so arranged his world that we have the ability to make significant choices, some good and some bad, which affect the course of history. One means God has given us to do this is prayer—asking him to act. Because he is all-wise and all-powerful, knowing "the end from the beginning" (Isa. 46:10), he's able to weave our requests into his eternally good purposes.
At this point our thinking can seriously go astray in one of two directions.
The first is to say, "If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, and if everything is preordained, then he's going to do whatever he wills anyway and thus our prayers can't have any significant effect. Sure, they may help us psychologically, such that talking to God helps us get things off our chest that may help us feel better, but prayers don't count for much in the grand scheme of things. So why bother?"
Here there's an overemphasis on God's absolute sovereignty.
The second route, though different from the first, ends up in the same place by denying the usefulness of prayer. Here's the objection: "If human beings are free to make up their own minds, then God can't be absolutely sovereign; he must take risks such that human decisions can thwart his purposes, so there are severe limits to what we can ask for without undermining human freedom. If, for example, you have been praying for your sister to become a Christian, and God has done everything he can to bring her to himself, but somehow she won't surrender to him, why bother asking God to save her? It's out of order to pressure God to do more than he can do. So just give up on prayer."
Here the emphasis rests on a certain understanding of human freedom ("libertarian").Strange Logic
Taken at face value, both objections appear to have some force, but only because they employ a strange "logic" that goes beyond Scripture. It's always foolish and dangerous to play up one aspect of what the Bible teaches at the expense of something else it equally affirms. The God of the Bible is presented as the one who rules over all; he's all-knowing, all-wise, and all-powerful. He isn't surprised by anything we may think or do. On the other hand, Scripture also presents human beings as responsible moral agents who make significant choices, doing what we desire to do ("freedom of inclination"). God has chosen to relate to us personally without compromising the fact that he is God.
That said, Scripture describes the sovereign God as "repenting" or "relenting" in response to human prayer. Take Exodus 32, for instance. At this point in salvation history, the people of Israel have broken the Ten Commandments by building and worshiping a golden calf. Incensed, God vows to wipe them out. "I have seen these people, and they are a stiff-necked people," he says to Moses. "Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation" (vv. 9-10). But Moses steps into the breach and reminds God of his promises, arguing his reputation will be brought into disrepute for saying one thing—"I will save the people"—and doing another—destroying them, appearing to renege on his promises to Abraham. Moses appeals to God as the sovereign king to show mercy (vv. 11-13). And that's exactly what happens: "Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened" (v. 14).Certain Means
The theoretical problem raised by a belief in the efficacy of prayer to a sovereign God is acknowledged by C. S. Lewis, who helpfully places it within the wider context of God using certain means to achieve desired ends:
Can we believe that God really modifies his action in response to the suggestions of men? For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it. But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents, whether living or inanimate. He could, if he chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food; or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers; or knowledge without the aid of learned men; or convert the heathen without missionaries. Instead he allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to co-operate in the execution of his will. "God," said Pascal, "instituted prayer in order to lend to his creatures the dignity of causality." But not only prayer; whenever we act at all he lends us that dignity. It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so. They have not advised or changed God's mind—that is, his overall purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including prayers, of his creatures.
Our problem in trying to see how prayer "works" is that we often have a wrong view of God in relation to his world. Often we think of God like Bruce Almighty, sitting in a celestial office and feverishly dealing with all the requests that arrive: "Mrs. Green prays her husband's cancer be cured," "Mr. Young prays his wife might conquer alcoholism," and so on—with a million more worthy requests. It's seems to be in line with God's will that Mr. Green be healthy and Mrs. Young be sober. But what if both get worse? Does this mean that God doesn't answer prayer?
The tangled web of humans living in a fallen world makes things more complex. At times, the good ends God desires arise from certain evils. So at one level, cancer is an evil, part of the curse on a rebellious world. God sometimes does answer prayers for healing (and in one sense all healing is divine in that God is working providentially). But we also must recognize that since we're mortal, all people die sometime. What's more, other prayers may be offered and answered that can only be answered if there's not healing—like gaining patience through suffering or an increased focus on the world to come. Maybe Mr. Green's son has turned his back on God, and through his father's illness he'll return. So in order to "answer" one prayer, the return of the son, God doesn't "answer" the other, complete healing. God alone knows what is best.As Jesus Did
Therefore, we're called to pray as Jesus did. As a result of our prayers, some things will happen that wouldn't otherwise. And we're responsible for whether we pray or not. Because God is a personal God, he invites us to share in his work through prayer. As Bruce Ware puts it, "God has devised prayer as a means of enlisting us as participants in the work he has ordained, as part of the outworking of his sovereign rulership over all. . . . The relationship between divine sovereignty and petitionary prayer can be stated by this word: participation."
God has the power and wisdom to use our prayers as he sees fit and to do what we could never imagine. If he weren't all-powerful, there'd be little point in praying. If he weren't all wise, it'd be dangerous to pray; after all, who'd want to ask an all-powerful but foolish person to do anything? But God is both perfectly wise and infinitely powerful, which is why you and I can pray with confidence.
This article has been adapted from Melvin Tinker's book Intended for Good: The Providence of God (InterVarsity).
Books, conferences, support groups, accountability software—there is no shortage of resources designed to help Christians struggling with lust. Is there really a need, then, for another book on the topic?
Heath Lambert's Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace (Zondervan) may not be unique in aim, but it is in approach. How does the good news of Jesus practically speak to the problem of porn? Lambert identifies eight gospel-grounded strategies that give those caught in porn's grip both the fuel and also the roadmap for change. Biblically informed, grace-saturated, and practical throughout, Finally Free meets weary sinners where they are and offers hope for change. Few books truly deserve the designation "must read." This is probably an exception.
I corresponded with Lambert, assistant professor of biblical counseling at Southern Seminary and author of The Biblical Counseling Movement after Adams (Crossway, 2011) and Counseling the Hard Cases (B&H, 2012) [interview], about what he's after in this book, why porn feels more enslaving than other sins, and more.
There are a lot of books out there on sexual purity. What's unique about Finally Free?
There are three things that separate Finally Free from the rest of the pack.
First, it is gospel-centered. So many of the books about sexual purity say they're centered on the gospel, but when you read them you don't hear the gospel. You hear secular theories about felt needs, moralism, or guilt-motivation instead. None of these is ultimately helpful because none offers the power of God to change found in the gospel of Jesus (Rom. 1:16). I was determined in Finally Free to provide a clear presentation of how the gospel empowers people to change, from the first page to the last.
Second, it is practical. After you throw out the books that aren't gospel-centered, you're left with a few truly faithful books that point people to God's grace as the key to change. In each of those books, however, I usually found they weren't as practical as they needed to be. Guys fighting for purity will feel hopeless if you talk about grace but fail to show how that grace gets up and walks around in their struggle. In my ministry I needed a resource that was as practical as it was grace-saturated. I pray Finally Free is that resource.
Finally, the book is free of immoral and crude language. Some of the bestselling books on pornography and purity are actually full of shocking material. I know dozens of men who got introduced to more pornography because they found out about it in those books. Finally Free is a frank discussion about sexuality and porn, but I avoid impure or crass speech.
Why does porn tend to feel so much more enslaving than other sins?
All "life dominating" difficulties feel enslaving to the people who struggle with them. Women who cut themselves or make themselves throw up feel enslaved to the problem. Guys who struggle with homosexual temptation feel enslaved to a problem they don't know how to combat.
Struggles with pornography are like these and many others. But porn is unique because it is, I suspect, much more prevalent. For guys struggling with porn, the enslaving elements are found in two areas. First, sexual sins have a unique ability to enslave (for biblical-theological reasons I don't have space to unpack here). Second, porn hides in the dark. When you combine the sexuality and the secrecy of porn you have an enslaving combination. This means one of the most important things guys can do to break its enslaving power is the one thing they often sense they cannot do—expose the darkness to the light. This is hard, but Jesus will empower you to do it when you ask him for his help.
You write, "Some of you [are] so submerged in a pornographic lifestyle that the gospel teaching at the beginning [of the book] will best take root after you have taken some steps to remove porn from your life." What are some of these radical measures you suggest?
I go into a lot of detail about this in the book, but we need to take radical measures in three basic areas.
First, we need to take radical measures to remove the anonymity of porn. That means we need to be honest with someone of the same sex about our problem, and everything about it. We need to be honest about how much of a problem it is, and how regularly we look at it. We need to invite their intervention in our life to eradicate it.
Second, we need to take radical measures to remove the availability of porn. One of the first things people need to do is make it as hard as possible to view porn. There are tons of options these days, from password protections on TVs, computers, and phones to blocking and filtering devices.
Third, we need to take radical measures to remove our appetite for porn. This is the big one. Ultimately we can bypass the previous measures if we really want to. If we truly desire to be different then we must work—over time, and by grace—to end our desire for pornography. The only way to do this is to grow in our passion and zeal for Jesus. This is one of the things I labor carefully to explain in the book.
If you were given two minutes to address every young Christian man in the world today on this topic, what would you say?
First, you can change. I want to tell you this, because if you've had any kind of struggle with porn for any length of time then you likely wonder if this is true. You must believe, however, that you can change. Jesus did not come merely to get us into heaven. He came to make us like himself. Jesus has given you his Holy Spirit to make you holy. This isn't usually easy or quick, but it is real. You must believe you're not stuck in a struggle you're bound to lose, but that freedom from this sin is possible.
Second, you need help. There is one thing standing between you and the change I just mentioned: whether you will reach out for help. Reach out for help right now. Ask Jesus to help you, to forgive you, and to give you power to be different. When you draw near to him in faith he will never turn you away. After that, reach out to another person of the same sex who has some wisdom. Pick up the phone or send a text and say you need to talk as soon as possible. Though that step can seem hard, making it is the first step towards the purity for which you long.
July 10, 2013. It was the day I was supposed to go to the hospital and find out the gender of my unborn child, a mid-point milestone of pregnancy in the 21st century. Every day, mothers and fathers walk into the doctor's office and wait with eager anticipation as the ultrasound technician helps them discover whether they will paint their nursery blue or pink. Will they plan for the creative destruction of a little boy or the emotional tempest of a teenage daughter? Will they clean peas and cheese smashed into the floor or entertain intense disquisitions about mermaids?
My wife and I already have three children and chose to forego this knowledge with each of them. We were happily surprised with a daughter and then two sons. Our fourth child, the fourth in only four-and-a-half years, threw our life into utter chaos. The baby was a surprise, actually a complete shock, and yet we had adjusted to the logistically nightmarish shape our life took on in March when we discovered this baby's existence. We had four months to talk about a different house, different car, and contemplate the possibility of three kids simultaneously in diapers. We came to love the chaos brought on by the mysterious and awful power of new life. Who were we to judge what God had chosen to do in his providence?Stillborn
But we did not go to the hospital on that Wednesday in July. We did not go to find out the gender of our little girl because we found out who she was when she passed from this world into the next at 17 weeks old. Our baby, our second daughter, was taken from us before we ever had the chance to know her. This far along in pregnancy, death in utero means that the mother must labor and deliver the stillborn child.
Was she stillborn, or was this just a miscarriage? Just a miscarriage? Medically speaking a child is considered stillborn in the United States once she reaches 20 weeks and beyond in the womb. Earlier death is considered a miscarriage. What do these words mean, though? Either way it means the extinction of human life. I do not know what to call it, but I know that I held my daughter in all her beauty for several hours in that hospital room; I beheld her lovely little toes and fingers and her glorious, if yet largely unformed face. I pleaded with God to welcome her into his kingdom with open arms and be a better father to her than I could ever be. I pleaded with my heavenly Father to help me deal with jealousy and envy at the reality that others would be spending time with my girl and not me. I begged him to keep me content on this earth, for the desire to be absent from this body and present with the Lord and my little Emma Llewellyn positively overwhelmed me. I did not think about suicide but rather a simple urgency just to be gone, to be taken from the pain of this world. Grief is strange that way.
I prayed that my wife would be cared for in the coming months, because I knew that her road ahead was different from mine in some ways. She actually delivered our lifeless child and has wrestled with the possibility she may have done something wrong. However rational her response, if you have experienced this kind of loss, such fears cannot simply be explained away. What if I had not indulged that one sip of wine? Did I inhale toxic fumes? Did I not love this baby in my heart and soul as much as my previous children? What about that potent medication I took four years ago on which you are not supposed to become pregnant?
It is a tender mercy of God that we learned soon after Emma's death that she died for a specific reason. A fairly rare condition had developed in which the umbilical cord did not attached to the placenta the way that it should have, resulting in a tenuous connection between baby and placenta. That connection failed when Emma began moving around in the womb.
Whether you know the reason or not, your pain is real. Your family has died to what it would have been. Those in your family, church, or community may not understand your pain. They may say insensitive things, act aloof, and fail to understand why you cannot get over losing a person you never met. You can always have another one, right? No, we know it is not that simple. Someone made in the image of eternal God has left your earthly family forever.
Grace must abound in the wake of the death of a child in the womb precisely because others do not understand. And I do not mean grace from others to you, but rather your grace with others. God may call you to the primary task of ministering to others, even as they attempt to minister to you. Their lack of understanding may call for patience and gentleness you can barely muster. God gives this strength, even as he continues to console your heart with his Spirit.Comforting Those Who Wait for the Resurrection
Death, that most hateful of things, awaits every one of us, yet its sting is unique when it takes a helpless babe. While we believe Jesus conquered death at the cross, we wait for the resurrection to fully realize the death of death. Until then we must bear the burdens of and mourn with those around us.
The comfort and hope of the resurrection give us great resources for responding to those in your community who have suffered the pains of miscarriage. Here are six thought to keep in mind as you comfort and console.
Miscarriage, like all other loss, presents an opportunity to seek refuge in bitterness, independence, and hobbies or to rest in the bottomless grace of a God who has known the most severe pain and sorrow. His compassion for a family's lost child is matched only by his goodness to us.
A few years ago I attended an evangelism conference called Vital, hosted by Q Place. In one of the sessions, Randy Siever, a former pastor and Young Life staffer, asked everyone in the audience to find a partner and discuss three potentially controversial subjects: gay marriage, immigration reform, and the New England Patriots. Sounds harmless enough, I thought. But here was the clincher: Only one partner could share his or her opinions; the other could only listen and ask questions.
The resulting conversation intrigued me, and not because of my discussion partner's feelings on immigration or the Patriots. It surprised me that I would have so much trouble keeping my own opinions to myself. Try it sometime. It is amazing—and disturbing—how hard it can be simply to listen and ask questions.'Telling' Culture
Why was it so hard? We live in a "telling" culture. Via Facebook and Twitter we tell the world what we had for breakfast, how our in-laws drive us nuts, and how this or that celebrity got arrested again. The extent of listening goes as far as pushing a "like" button or making a comment and calling it a day.
We could take the pessimistic route and make gloomy predictions about what this behavior portends for our future. But as Christians with a desire to see the world renewed and redeemed, we could instead see an opportunity. After all, people obviously desire to be heard by others in hopes of hearing a response. People crave engagement. They want someone who will acknowledge and respect their thoughts and feelings. For Christians living in this technologically interconnected but relationally disconnected culture, communicating the unconditional love of Christ could mean simply demonstrating curiosity about other people.Rippling Consequences
In today's evangelistic economy, little things don't seem to count for much. But Jesus' method of disciple-making was highly relational and practiced through simple gestures. Consider how Jesus initiated a conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. He simply asked her, "Would you give me a drink of water?" Jesus could have made water flow from a rock—or at least he could have provided a way to draw his own water from the well. He did not need to engage this woman. But he did. Why? Relationships start with simple questions and actions that build bridges and encourage trust. Jesus' simple question initiated a deep conversation with rippling spiritual consequences.
The Western church needs to follow Jesus' lead and reclaim relationships as the foundation for spiritual growth. David Kinnaman, author of You Lost Me, outlines the reasons why Millennials are leaving the church. Those reasons include perceptions of the church as shallow, exclusive, unfriendly to those who doubt, and overall disconnected. This disconnect has led to nearly three out of every five young Christians (59 percent) abandoning the church either permanently or for an extended period of time after age 15. If this trend persists, and if the church does not re-evaluate and innovate, then we risk neglecting what could be a marvelous opportunity to help rising generations navigate an increasingly complex cultural context.
So just when the church needs a fresh approach to evangelism and discipleship to fit the cultural context, we find hope in applying the simple practices Jesus demonstrated in his own ministry. We can pair simple relational skills like noticing, listening, and asking questions with being creative about when and how we engage in spiritual conversations. As we combine simple practices with personalized expression, we come to understand discipleship as an art.
Interestingly, that session at the Vital conference was called "The Art of Noticing." It fits well. After all, there is no universal formula for discipleship, since no two relationships are the same. If we start seeing discipleship as an art, where spiritual conversations are regularly practiced and personalized, we might start seeing some radical kingdom growth.
Next week, hundreds of current and aspiring church leaders will assemble in Birmingham, Alabama, for an exciting new event. Sponsored by Acts 29 in partnership with Beeson Divinity School and The Gospel Coalition, Engage the South is a one-day gathering that advocates for the kind of churches we need in today's American South.
Matt Chandler, David Platt, Ray Ortlund, Kevin Smith, and Bryan Loritts will lead us in a series of sessions designed to teach, inspire, and train. There's still time for you to register.
We asked Loritts, who will deliver a message titled "Churches That Plant Churches," about the greatest challenge facing churches in the American South today.
You'll understand if I'm initially hesitant to answer questions laced with superlatives like "greatest." I'm no expert. However, I've grown up in the South and had the joy of serving as lead pastor of Fellowship Memphis since its inception 10 years ago. So I have a few ideas on the challenges facing the church in the South.
Not all Southern cities have been created equally. There are actually two types of Southern cities: (1) Old South, where most of the people who live in the city are natives (Memphis is still an Old South city, but that's slowly changing in part to FedEx being a hub here); and (2) New South, where most of the people are immigrants. Cities like Atlanta, Dallas, and Charlotte come to mind when talking about New South cities.
One of the major differences between Old and New South cities is that one has a higher concentration of "older brother" religious people while the other is increasingly growing in their "younger brother" secular population (though still for the most part considered to be the Bible Belt). If you pastor in the South—especially an Old South city like Memphis—you have to be able to preach the gospel to the older brother of Luke 15. You're not in New York where you must contextualize the gospel primarily to the skeptic. You're in the South where churches are still welcomed in public schools and praying before games isn't a big deal in many contexts. Thanks to flannel boards, Awana programs, and sword-drill competitions, knowledgeable heads high in Bible IQ fill our seats, inches removed from cold and (in many cases) unregenerate hearts. If you don't know how to preach to the older brother, you won't be effective below the Mason-Dixon.
I know you asked me for "the greatest challenge," but as a preacher I have the right to add just one more point. I believe we have an unprecedented opportunity to reverse the trajectory of the church backward to her first-century, multi-ethnic roots. I continue to remain indebted to Dr. King and to all who marched and endured persecution so that I can sit anywhere I'd like on the bus. But the civil-rights movement was limited in that while it changed laws, it could never change hearts. The legacy of racism that has become so entrenched in our country over the past centuries, particularly in the South, wasn't eradicated with the stroke of a pen when the Civil Rights Act was signed. In place of long marches and monumental speeches we need sanctuaries and dinner tables filled with the sons and daughters of Confederate soldiers embracing and doing life with the descendants of slaves.
The Trayvon Martin case reminded me of this need. What if George Zimmerman and Martin had attended the same multi-ethnic church, having sat around dinner tables and done life with one another? Martin would still be alive, because instead of seeing a suspicious young black man, Zimmerman would've had a relational context to guide his actions that evening.