Archive for October, 2014

Sermon 10-05-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 9a: Elijah”

October 16, 2014

superhero graphic

This is the first of two sermons I’ll preach about Elijah and the widow of Zarephath from 1 Kings 17. Today’s sermon focuses on Elijah’s hearing the “word of the Lord” and responding. We’re not told how the word of the Lord came to Elijah, but this sermon describes ways in which we can discern the Lord’s voice today: through scripture, through trusted Christian friends and mentors, through external circumstances, and by listening to our own heart. Once we “hear” his word speaking, however, we must find the courage to obey. That’s often the hard part!

Sermon Text: 1 Kings 17:8-24

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

For the past couple of weeks, tens of thousands of university students in the city of Hong Kong have been publicly protesting a new election law put in place by the Chinese government. This law limits Hong Kong’s right to rule itself. If you’ll recall, Hong Kong was under British rule until 1997. Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to China on the condition that the Communist Chinese government would let Hong Kong retain the right to govern itself democratically.

Students protesting in Hong Kong.

Students protesting in Hong Kong.

For the most part, the mainland Chinese government has honored that agreement, at least until last month. Now, the Chinese government wants to veto any candidate running for office in Hong Kong that it doesn’t approve of.

As a New York Times article points out, this puts the U.S. in an awkward position. One administration official said, “We have principles and values that we want to promote, but we’re not looking to inject the United States into the middle of this.” An official statement from the American consulate said, “We don’t take sides in China’s internal disputes.”

Don’t take sides? We’re the United States! Aren’t we always on the side of democracy and the right of self-determination? What about the Declaration of Independence! But… China is our largest and most important trading partner. We are seeking their cooperation in our war against ISIS. We need them to support us on a nuclear agreement with Iran.

I don’t pretend to know what the right thing to do is. But as you can see, what ends up happening is that we compromise our principles and values in the interest of diplomacy. And this sort of thing happens all the time, no matter who the president is, whether he’s a Democrat or a Republican. Read the rest of this entry »

“In the darkness, the Lord brought back into my mind his Word and his peace”

October 16, 2014


Nancy Writebol, the missionary nurse in Liberia who contracted Ebola and was successfully treated at Emory University Hospital last July, was interviewed for this week’s Christianity Today. Her words reminded me of my sermon last week. As I discussed the headlines involving Brittany Maynard, I quoted James 1:2-3: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Count it all joy. Does “all” mean all? This is a hard truth but true nonetheless: God has what Tim Keller calls a “causal relationship with suffering”—meaning that God has good reasons for permitting it. As bad as our present suffering may be, we may trust that the alternative to our suffering—given this fallen world and its sin-filled circumstances—would be even worse. Even suffering, therefore, serves God’s purposes. The good news, as a consequence, is that God has the power to redeem it and use it for our good.

As I’ve said many times before, if God can transform the worst evil and suffering on the cross of his Son Jesus into the world’s greatest good, then he certainly has the power to redeem lesser evil and suffering—even our own.

Many Christians resist this idea. But I wonder: Would they rather God have no control over our suffering—and merely watch from the sidelines of our lives with pity? In that case, God would not be the God revealed to us in Jesus.

Writebol doesn’t pretend to understand why she contracted Ebola or why she was healed while so many others weren’t. Nevertheless, she said, “I just have to say that God is so great, and that we don’t know his mind and we don’t want to put him in a box: ‘This is how God should work or shouldn’t work.'”

Here are some relevant excerpts from the interview:

How did you wrestle spiritually with the fact that you contracted Ebola and lived while many of your colleagues did not?

It is a wrestle. First of all, we don’t know the mind of God and why the Lord allowed me to survive and some of my African brothers and sisters not to survive. I just have to say that God is so great, and that we don’t know his mind and we don’t want to put him in a box: “This is how God should work or shouldn’t work.”

God has allowed us to survive, and there are many African brothers and sisters who are surviving Ebola. We give God glory for those who are surviving. But it’s like cancer or any disease: some survive and some don’t. I trust the Lord in what he’s doing and how he’s working. He’s brought awareness to the Ebola crisis, which has helped in getting a vaccine and a serum that can maybe help, and in raising awareness for the rest of the African countries that are suffering.

Did you ever ask God why you got sick?

I don’t know that I ever asked “Why, God?” or “Why?” I know that I received peace from the Lord. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t dark times. All of us in Liberia felt that the week that Dr. Brantly and I were really struggling, there was a spiritual battle going on—there were some very, very dark days. But also in the darkness, the Lord brought back into my mind his Word and his peace…

To what extent had you already been thinking through these theological issues simply because you had been treating Ebola for several weeks?

I always felt safe going. I trusted the Lord that we were the hands and feet of Christ. I had experienced Christ’s peace way before I ever contracted Ebola. [After I got sick,] my relationship with the Lord deepened, knowing he was in control. He was in control of what was happening, and it was not a surprise to God. He has our days numbered.

Why “religious pluralism” fails to respect other religions

October 15, 2014

I’m leading a Bible study tonight on Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which we’ll tackle the deeply controversial idea underlying Paul’s words in Romans 2:28-29: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”

Let’s not beat around the bush: Paul is claiming that those who belong to the new covenant in the Messiah are now entitled to the name “Jew.” One problem with this claim is the exclusivity it implies about Christianity. We modern people, even we more “sophisticated” Christians, are supposed to believe that Christianity and Judaism (and probably Islam and other religions) present parallel paths to the same reality that we name “God.” If we sincerely embark upon any of these paths, we wind up in the same place, ultimately.

The idea that all sincere religions are parallel paths to God—otherwise known as religious pluralism—sounds deeply respectful of other people’s religious beliefs, but not so fast. N.T. Wright puts the problem in sharp relief. He says religious pluralism is rooted in Enlightenment thinking, according to which,

all religions are inadequate approximations to truth, and, despite what many of them say, none has exclusive rights to it. The appropriate stance is therefore mutual tolerance. This is, of course, a covert way of saying, among other things, that (at least) Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are all actually misleading, since all of them make, at the very heart, claims that the others are bound to deny if they are not to lose their very identity. Nevertheless, this secularized agenda has seeped into both Jewish and Christian circles, often coupled with the laudable desire for humility and mutual respect, sometimes using that as a pretext for a highly arrogant liberalism that challenges all truth claims while pressing its own with remarkable intolerance.[†]

N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 451.

To quit porn, first believe that you can quit porn… and other helpful advice

October 14, 2014

As I blogged about last week, Brett McKay has written a 4-part series on breaking the porn habit on his Art of Manliness blog. It’s filled with wisdom and insight, and it may prove indispensable to men who are ready to break the habit once and for all. In Part 4 of his series, he offers practical advice on how to do it.

As McKay says repeatedly, one key is to recognize that a habit—any habit, including even the porn habit—can be broken. This is why he urges us not to think of porn use as an addiction.

Among men who are trying to quit, it’s popular to conjure up images of porn being an unbeatable dark monster/plague/pandemic/war that must be fought tooth and nail and if you succumb to it, you’re destined to becoming a goat rapist, or something. But I don’t think that mindset is very helpful. In fact, firebrand rhetoric like that can actually backfire. Research suggests that this sort of simplistic, over-the-top rhetoric was the big reason the D.A.R.E. Program failed to reduce drug use amongst American teenagers back in the 80s and 90s. One study even showed that compared to middle schoolers who didn’t take part in the program, D.A.R.E. students showed an increase in the use of drugs! D.A.R.E inadvertently made drugs alluring by giving them the aura of “forbidden fruit,” tempting kids who otherwise wouldn’t have given drugs much thought.

Remember: although McKay himself is a person of faith, he’s writing for a largely secular audience. So let me add some theology to his words: We Christians believe in the power to change our lives for the better—not through our own strength, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. We believe that through the Spirit we can (and must) overcome sin in our lives. We Wesleyan Christians, especially, emphasize the work of the Spirit in sanctification—the lifelong process of becoming holy people.

But someone might object: Yes, but if it’s the Holy Spirit, then we don’t have to do anything. On the contrary, while the Spirit enables change, he usually does so through our willingness to let him change us. So even though the Spirit is changing us, he’s often doing so through our human effort. Remember that Paul’s list of the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23 includes “self-control.” Although this virtue is “of the Spirit,” Paul emphasizes the role that we must play. Otherwise, Paul would have called it Spirit-control rather than self-control.

So in my mind, we men can apply all of McKay’s words about kicking the porn habit with the helpful understanding that we’re not doing it alone: the Lord is working through us to change us. Believe that God has the power to change us!

One of the best things we can do to overcome the habit, McKay believes, is to demystify it: to understand why the impulse to look at porn is so strong. He explains in depth why this is the case. Very briefly, the body produces dopamine when we start to become sexually aroused. Dopamine makes us feel good; it motivates and reinforces good and necessary behavior; it aids our survival. Obviously, the need to reproduce is an important survival behavior.

When we look at porn, then, our body doesn’t know that what we’re seeing isn’t real to us. We trick our bodies into thinking that we’re about to have sex. So our brain begins producing dopamine. The more porn we look at—and, unfortunately, there’s a free and limitless supply of it, thanks to the internet—the more dopamine we produce. Again, dopamine makes us feel good.

The problem is that our body’s defense against too much dopamine is to increase our resistance to it, by reducing the number of dopamine receptors. Like a drug abuser, we begin to need more of it to get the same effect. In the case of porn, this means not only viewing more porn, but seeking out a wider variety and more extreme versions of it in order to get the same “high.”

Practically speaking, therefore, we can become desensitized to “normal” sex with our spouses. Erectile dysfunction can therefore become a problem. McKay speculates that porn is the reason, for example, that Viagra and other ED drugs are increasingly popular with younger men.

This sounds pretty bleak, I know. We may wonder, Is a healthy sex drive no longer possible for men who’ve already spiraled down into compulsive porn use? But keep in mind that dopamine production explains why it’s difficult to overcome any bad habit—whether it’s porn, or overindulging in sweets, or biting one’s fingernails. In other words, the porn habit isn’t habitual in a unique way: it looks like any other bad habit. This is why one researcher encourages us to think of porn as “sexual junk food”—no more, no less. McKay writes:

Once you understand the science behind porn use, you can see it for what it really is: sexual junk food. You don’t give your bag of potato chips a menacing aura of power. They’re just potato chips. If you want to quit eating potato chips, you learn about the different ways carbs vs. protein and veggies affects your body, you throw away your potato chips, you quit going down the potato chip aisle in the grocery store, and you choose the celery stick at the party. Try doing the same thing with internet pornography.

I know some might think that’s a flippant comparison, particularly if they’ve seen porn destroy marriages and relationships, but I think understanding the problem and making it approachable is truly the key to success here. It puts you in a proactive place where you can confidently start taking steps to kick the habit.

Here’s the good news: we can “reboot” and “rewire” our sex drives, as McKay explains in detail. Rebooting means that if we stop viewing porn for a period of time, dopamine receptors will increase and our sex drive will return to its “factory settings.” Interestingly, McKay says that exercise and fasting can assist this process. Rewiring recognizes that over time our brains create neural pathways that make porn consumption easier and easier. Our brain becomes “wired” for porn. We can rewire our brains, however, by changing the external “cues” that make us want to open our web browsers and search for porn. See his post for specific steps we can take.

McKay’s words about changing our mindsets about porn are filled with wisdom. He concedes that it’s harder for us Christian men to do so. He writes:

The folks who are most concerned about porn tend to be religious, and they see porn as a spiritual cancer.

And yet the way that porn is more often than not discussed at church tends to be incredibly counterproductive, driving men deeper into porn use instead of away from it.

If you’re a regular reader of AoM, you’ll know I’ve talked about the fact that shame can be an unmatchable motivator for seeking positive improvement. But that’s only if it’s simultaneously accompanied by both the will to do better and the confidence that you can improve. If shame is just a trigger for self-pity and endless rumination about how you’re a terrible person, the effect is exactly the opposite. Excess shame becomes debilitating.

That’s why, and this relates to the points made above, I think it’s actually highly ineffective to go overboard on demonizing porn use. Yes, for Christian guys, it’s a sin, and I’ve got nothing against calling a sin, a sin. But porn frequently gets weighted with more baggage than its fellow transgressions; Jesus said simply looking at a woman with lust was adultery, and yet if we catch a young man ogling a woman’s cleavage we tend to just smack him in the head and tell him to cut it out. Yet if he looks at a pair of breasts online – whoa-ho-ho! — he is sick! Filthy! Depraved! On the pathway to addiction and Hell! All this overweening smack down accomplishes is leading the porn user to withdraw, to hide his dirty secret at all costs from his friends and family, to suffer crushing guilt and anxiety, and to feel hopelessly defective, which all leads back to…more porn to soothe his feelings of stress and isolation! I truly believe that excess shame is frequently what turns casual porn use into a compulsion…

If a loved one or someone at your church is having a problem with porn, it’s okay to express disappointment, and it’s okay for the man to feel some healthy shame for the way in which he’s fallen short of your shared ideals. But don’t heap on the scorn. Teach young men that sexuality is a healthy, wonderful thing. Teach them that their attraction to porn is a very normal consequence of their biology and brains, that they should try not to slip up, but if they do, to just get right back in the saddle and keep on trucking.

Good words for pastors like me!

A little more theology: Satan is resourceful. He’ll try to ruin us any way he can. Blinding us to the spiritual harm of pornography (which seems to be his main strategy these days) is one way. But excessive shame and self-loathing can also do the trick. Remember the kind of Savior that we believe in: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

God As Author And Sustainer With Regard to Euthanasia And Assisted Suicide

October 13, 2014

My friend Brandon Blake elaborated on my post regarding Brittany Maynard by adding an insight from Gilbert Meilaender. I like Meilaender’s analogy of an author’s relationship to his artistic work: The work depends entirely on its creator, the author, although the author grants characters in his “work” the freedom to be true to their natures. They contradict their natures, however, when they try to bring the story to its conclusion on their own, rather than allow the author to do so.

The Atom Panopticon

My facebook friend Brent White has an excellent post on one of the biggest news stories of the week, the story of Brittnay Maynard. You can read his post here.

In the the first paragraph White says this:

Given the tone of this article, which was reprinted in USA Today and received much sympathetic approval on social media, I find myself strangely unmoved by this 29-year-old cancer patient’s decision to end her life later this month. Whatever else her decision may be, it is deeply unchristian. It denies the fact that God gives us each moment of life as a gift. It also denies that God could have any purpose for permitting someone to suffer—what Tim Keller rightly calls God’s “causal relationship with suffering.”

I want to add to his point about “God giving us each moment of our lives.” Most of the time words or something to that…

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Following up on yesterday’s sermon

October 13, 2014
Brittany Maynard has announced publicly that she'll end her life on November 1.

Brittany Maynard has announced publicly that she’ll end her life on November 1.

In yesterday’s sermon, I connected perhaps the two biggest news items last week—Ebola and Brittany Maynard—with the scripture on which I was preaching, Elijah and the widow from Zarephath from 1 Kings 17:8-24.

The sermon was well received. One parishioner said she was surprised to hear a Methodist pastor speak with clarity and conviction on a hot-button subject like physician-assisted suicide, or so-called “death with dignity.” Is she saying that we namby-pamby Methodist preachers wouldn’t risk offending anyone? Perish the thought! Regardless, for whatever reason, Maynard’s story struck a chord with me. I blogged about it last week, and while I borrowed words from that blog post, I expanded on them, in part to address some thoughtful criticism of that post.

One commenter on my blog wondered whether I failed to express sufficient compassion for Maynard’s plight as someone dying of brain cancer. She was probably right. As I tried to make clear in yesterday’s sermon, however, my criticism of her decision and the cause that she’s advocating in no way detracts from my compassion.

In yesterday’s scripture, Elijah asks the widow to deny her maternal instinct to keep her young son alive and her human instinct to keep herself alive by using her last handful of four and oil to feed Elijah first. I asked, “Isn’t it hard to trust in the Lord like that? My faith has never been so badly tested… yet.”

Speaking of which, it is with great sympathy that I read last week—along with many of you—the story of a 29-year-old woman named Brittany Maynard, who is dying of a brain cancer in Portland, Oregon. She announced publicly through CNN that with the help of a doctor, she will end her life on November 1st. She says she wants to die with dignity, on her own terms, without going through painful cancer treatments, without lingering for weeks or months in hospice, without putting her husband, and family, and friends through the heartache of watching her die. And she’s advocating for the cause of physician-assisted suicide.

I promise I feel great compassion for her. I watched my own father take his last breaths in hospice care many years ago. And in my job as pastor I’ve seen people of all ages succumb to cancer and other terrible diseases, and I’ve ministered to them and their loved ones with a heavy heart and sometimes with tears. In spite of that, I’m deeply troubled by her decision to end her life like this—and since she’s made it a public issue in order to convince us to change our minds and change our laws regarding suicide, I don’t mind sharing with you why I think she’s wrong.

After sharing the insights from my blog post, including the words of Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl, I returned to a recurring theme in recent sermons:

You know, I’ve preached a lot recently about all these contemporary Christian martyrs who are suffering and even dying for their faith all around the world. And I speak of them with a sense of wonder and amazement at how courageous they are—that they can stare death in the face and simply accept it, as a consequence of their faith in Christ. And I speak of them as if their example and courage and witness are something unusual and exotic—something to which most of us would have a hard time relating. But that can’t be right. Because I’ve been privileged enough to be at the bedside of dozens of Christians who’ve faced their own death not with fear, but with this same kind faithfulness, and courage, and equanimity, and hope. They teach me—they teach us—how to die as a Christian.

I pray that Brittany will find this same courage, this same peace, this same hope, which comes from our Lord Jesus, before she makes this irreversible decision to end her life.

In the sermon, I also dealt with the implicit question that the widow must have asked herself: “If I give what the Lord is asking me to give, will there be enough left over for me?” Another way of asking: If I surrender my life to Jesus and seek to be faithful to him, will my own needs be met?

I can’t tell you how this last question resonates with me. Because I’m constantly frustrated that some of my “needs” (if you want to call them that) continue to be unmet by Jesus: my need for recognition, for instance—for awards, for praise, for the kind of objective “success” that other people would recognize and appreciate. After all, if I can’t be “successful” as a pastor (by which, let’s face it, I really mean more successful than my clergy colleagues) what good am I?

Yes, I know it’s ridiculous that some part of me keeps craving these things! Perhaps by withholding them from me, the Lord is starving the sinful impulse entirely. I hope so, because even if I got what I think I needed, it would never be enough. My ego’s appetite is without limit.

Just in the past several days, a clergy colleague posted on Facebook (on two different occasions, I’m sorry to have noticed) that he’s recently baptized dozens and received many more into membership in his church. I read these words and can’t be happy for him—not really. Because I feel judged by him and his success. I wonder, “What am I doing wrong? After all, despite my best efforts, I haven’t baptized dozens.”

It makes me depressed.

When I feel this way, I find that prayer helps. I sense that Jesus is telling me, “Just be faithful to me, and you’ll be O.K. I’ll take care of you. I’ll give you what you really need. I promise.”

Sermon 09-28-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 8: David”

October 12, 2014

superhero graphic

Whether we like to admit it or not, we disciples of Jesus Christ often doubt. Maybe we don’t doubt God’s existence the way some people do, but we doubt that God has the power to make a difference in the challenges we face in life. What can we learn from today’s Bible hero, David, about trusting in God and his power to bring change?

Sermon Text: 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is the spiritual head of the Church of England. I love Justin Welby! He’s a plainspoken man—humble, down to earth; doesn’t put on airs, doesn’t take himself too seriously. Most importantly, he is a person of great Christian faith, which is obvious to everyone who knows him or knows of him. But he made headlines last week for an interview he gave in which he was asked the following question: “Do you ever doubt?” And he answered,

Justin Welby meets Queen on his first day in office

Yes I do… There are moments, sure… The other day I was praying over something while I was running and I ended up saying to God, ‘This is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there,’ which is not probably what the Archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

See, I even like him for praying while he runs, which I also do!

Anyway, the British press had a field day with what they regarded as some stunning admission of doubt. One headline read, “Head of the Church of England doubts the existence of God.” Read the rest of this entry »

A great series on breaking the porn habit

October 9, 2014
My favorite character on my favorite TV show, Parks & Recreation: Ron Swanson. He's famous for knowing how to be a man.

My favorite character on my favorite TV show, Parks & Recreation: Ron Swanson. He’s famous for knowing how to be a man.

Brett McKay’s Art of Manliness website is a treasure trove of helpful advice on how to be a better person man, from the practical (for instance, how to tie a bow-tie), to the not-so-practical but still cool to know (how to escape from zip ties), to the idealistic.

I’ve blogged about the crisis facing manhood in our culture, one symptom of which is that we men are discouraged from thinking that “manhood” is a meaningful idea. Boys and girls, we’re told, are blank tablets on which insidious cultural forces write a patriarchal script that we need to un-learn. Without these forces, there would be no meaningful differences between men and women, aside from brute anatomy.

Anyone who’s taken a graduate-level sociology course knows I’m not exaggerating.


Regardless, McKay has turned his attention this week to what I believe is the biggest spiritual threat facing men today: internet pornography. I encourage all my male readers to check it out.

If, like me, you’re plugged in to popular culture, you can identify with these words from his introduction:

Viewing porn, once considered a shameful pursuit to be carried on in society’s shadows, has become more than mainstream; today it’s considered a nearly universal part of every man’s life. Watch any modern television show (particularly sitcoms), and it is nearly assumed that the main male characters watch porn, and in many cases it’s practically celebrated (see Barney in How I Met Your Mother). In modern novels about American life, the same is true; and even in men’s magazines you’ll find a variety of quips about the normalness of porn. It’s become embedded into our pop culture and therefore our entertainment and our conversations.

While I’m aware that there are Christian resources to help men kick the porn habit, McKay’s approach is ostensibly secular (although he concedes up front that he also has religious objections to it) and, therefore, less judgmental and more sympathetic. If you’re a man who struggles with porn, you won’t hate yourself when you read these articles. But you’ll be armed, I hope, with information to help you regain self-control over this part of your life.

McKay’s main point is that even apart from traditional religious objections to porn—namely, sins of lust and masturbation—men have good reasons to avoid pornography, the most important of which is that it impedes our ability or desire to have sex with—you know—an actual, real-life woman. 

He talks at length about what happens to us, physiologically, when we view pornography. He argues that the relationship between a healthy sex drive and porn consumption is the same as the relationship between a healthy appetite and junk food. Read this article. It all comes down to dopamine production. McKay writes;

I think the very best way to frame porn is as “sexual junk food.” The all-powerful drive for both food and sex have been around since the dawn of man. We’re evolved to eat natural food, intermittently, but now find ourselves with crap-tastic offerings available on every street corner, at every hour of the day. This never-ending glut of junk food can be difficult to resist, but if we don’t, we end up obese, anxious, and depressed. In exactly the same way, we’re evolved for sex…with flesh and blood humans. But in our modern world, we’ve got virtual sex on tap 24/7. Gorging ourselves on it diminishes our spirit, enervates our virility, and harms our relationships – all the very best things in life. Porn is sexual junk food that promises nourishment, but leaves us feeling sicker and emptier than before.

Although he believes that compulsive porn-viewing can mirror addiction to alcohol and drugs, he believes that addiction language is unhelpful. It’s better to think of compulsive porn-viewing as a habit. We can break habits; whereas we often feel powerless over addictions. One important theme of his website, after all, is that we men need to take more responsibility for their lives, not less. Addiction language tends to minimize personal responsibility.

Labeling impulsive behaviors as addictions may hinder an individual from feeling capable of conquering an undesirable behavior. “Addiction” is a very loaded – even scary — word. When we tell ourselves we have an addiction, we’re implying that we’ve lost control of ourselves, that our ability to make our own choices is impaired, and that it may even be impossible to change course. Something else is in the driver’s seat, so to speak.

Thus, calling an undesirable behavior an addiction has the tendency to shift us from an internal locus of control to an external one. Research has shown that those with an internal locus exhibit greater control over their behavior and deal with challenges and stress better. Those with an external locus of control, on the other hand, feel like they’re a victim of powers outside themselves, which leads to stress, anxiety, and depression. The desire to soothe these hopeless feelings will then often lead right back to porn. And on the cycle will go.

Unfortunately, according to one study, we religious men are more likely to label porn use as an addiction, even when, by any secular definition, it’s not. McKay explains why this is the case:

For these religious men, to view porn is a spiritual transgression and complete abstinence from porn is the ideal. Thus if they find themselves surfing to a porn site once or twice a week to masturbate, there’s a dissonance between their behavior and the standard their faith has established. To ease that dissonance, instead of taking responsibility for the spiritual lapse, they pathologize it by calling it an addiction. By so doing they shift their locus of control to an external one and decide that they aren’t themselves doing it – instead, porn is doing something to them…

Moreover, I’d argue that by calling themselves addicts – even though from a clinical sense they obviously aren’t — these men are just making it more difficult to stop looking at porn because the addiction label puts them in a position of helplessness or, worse, they may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they do become full-blown porn addicts.

So if you’re a religious man who happens to use porn a few times a week, don’t be so quick to call it an addiction. Sure, it feels that way, but calling it such is more likely to hurt than help.

In tomorrow’s article, McKay promises to offer tips for those who want to kick the habit completely (which ought to include all of us Christian men). Here is part 1, part 2, and part 3.

“Life still expects something from you”

October 8, 2014


Given the tone of this article, which was reprinted in USA Today and received much sympathetic approval on social media, I find myself strangely unmoved by this 29-year-old cancer patient’s decision to end her life later this month. Whatever else her decision may be, it is deeply unchristian. It denies the fact that God gives us each moment of life as a gift. It also denies that God could have any purpose for permitting someone to suffer—what Tim Keller rightly calls God’s “causal relationship with suffering.”

Easy for me to say, I know. I’m a big coward who doesn’t want to suffer, either. But when suffering comes—and it will come to all of us in one form or another—God wants us to endure it and bear witness to our faith in the One who suffered far worse than we ever will.

I’m reminded of something that psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl said to fellow inmates who were thinking of walking into electrical fences and ending their lives: “You may want to kill yourself because you expect nothing else out of life, but life still expects something out of you: even if it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high.”

Life still expects something out of us, which is another way of saying that God expects something from us—for as long as he gives us life. If God didn’t, he would stop giving us that life.

Again, I say this as a coward who never wants to endure that kind of trial. But make no mistake: it is nothing less than a test of faith that I hope I’ll pass if—God forbid—suffering of that magnitude comes my way.

We follow a Savior, after all, who asks us to lay down our lives. That might include laying down our dignity as well.

In defense of Left Behind

October 7, 2014


On the occasion of the rebooted Left Behind movie franchise with Nicolas Cage (which, for some reason, sounds kind of awesome to me), many of my mainline Protestant colleagues in the blogosphere are eager to tell the world that the Rapture (along with the premillennial dispensationalist belief from which it springs) is a recent innovation in the history of Christian theology, having emerged in the past 200 years.

Then they tell us all the nasty things that the Rapture implies about God and his Creation. Read this representative blog post, for instance.

While I agree with the blogger, and nearly every major Christian thinker for the past 2,000 years, that there will be no Rapture, I’m unconvinced about the rest of it. And I said so in response to a clergy friend who linked to the blog post above.

Here’s what I wrote:

It’s not that I disagree with this blogger about the Rapture. I’m no fan of “modern” theological ideas, of which Rapture is one. But how much difference does believing or not believing in the Rapture make when we still have to contend with the Second Coming?

Aren’t we disregarding way too much of the New Testament, including the words of Jesus, to imagine that the Second Coming will only be something for the world to celebrate and not also fear? How will the Second Coming not be a fearful event when Final Judgment follows shortly thereafter?

Even if you’re a preterist [ed. note: I’m not] who believes that every parable of judgment that Jesus seemingly told about the Second Coming actually refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, you’re still left with Sheep and the Goats, for example—a frightening parable of final judgment, right? If the Second Coming ushers us into this judgment, it can’t be a happy occasion for those who have refused the gift of forgiveness and salvation in Christ.

If we believe in the doctrine of hell, we acknowledge the frightening prospect that people will, indeed, be left behind—eternally. Isn’t that far worse than being left behind temporarily?

Furthermore, while the redeemed, renewed, and re-created world on the other side of the Second Coming will be in continuity with our world, there will also be radical discontinuity. And even if believers were whisked away to heaven for a little while, I’m not aware that most dispensationalists believe that heaven is therefore the final destination: don’t they also believe in a return to a renewed earth on the other side of the millennium? (Forgive my ignorance here. I honestly haven’t studied dispensationalism in depth. But I see no logical reason why the Rapture precludes believing in a physical resurrection of the dead into a redeemed and renewed earth. Right?)

2 Peter 3:10-13 gives us the best picture of both continuity and discontinuity with the world to come: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

I grant the highly metaphorical language here, but Peter himself speaks of the world’s “dissolving,” “melting,” and “burning.” All that to say, whether or not we “neglect the present world and let it crumble away while we focus on our own eternal glory,” the world in the hereafter will be drastically different from our world today.