All kinds of motivational literature are good at telling you what’s good and bad. The church is great at beating the dead horse of consequences, drenching it in lighter fluid, and lighting it with napalm. We get it. Sin bad, God is good.
You might as well describe the water that the person is drowning in.
There are always real obstacles in the way of breaking free to a breakthrough. Like spiritual blocks that cut the momentum. What might not seem like a big deal to you might be a big deal to them. Because not everyone thinks like you. This is where it gets messy, messed up, and it’s not so black-and-white. Moving forward is not a straight line, and “sanctification” is less of a light switch than it is a journey.
God understands this and wants to break down each obstacle in the way, one at a time, until you can step forward unburdened by blind spots and dead weight. None of these obstacles make you a bad person, but just misinformed. Jesus didn’t come to make you “un-bad” anyway. He came to give you True Life.
Here are four obstacles to tackle to really break through to the other end of God’s vision. These things are not your fault, but you can choose not to wallow in them.
1) Upbringing and Culture
Stinking thinking comes from false paradigms and socially constructed half-truths that we bought into without really investigating them. That’s understandable though: it’s hard to shake off old patterns of thinking. Our mental pathways are much stronger than we think, but again, that does not make you a demonic person. It just means you need to recognize when it happens, where, and how to extract the lie.
A small example: In Asian cultures, we’re told to unequivocally respect our elders, no questions asked. This is no doubt a good tradition to lift up hard-working adults in high esteem. The problem comes when elders abuse this and younger people keep respecting them. It’s also possible that the youth can outgrow elders in spiritual maturity, which is an awkward transition to be handled with care. The truth here is that elders are just people too, and they cannot be seen as dictators who get it right every time.
We should always respect our elders (like we respect any other human being), but if it collides against common sense and God’s Word, we can drop the pose. Please hear me: I say that as a last resort, not a first strike. But at some point, you as a growing person have the right to question or even disobey an older person’s unwise counsel. And you as an adult must learn to defer to a younger person’s better wisdom. This works out better for everybody.
Lazy preacher tactics get you circling a drain of guilt, fear, and shame, which means you need to emotionally keep up with God at all costs. By “keeping up with God,” I mean a vague idea of God like some spiritual parole officer who demands religious activity and an absolute on-switch faith or He’ll release the trapdoor to the flames of hell.
No one in the history of anywhere has ever been successfully transformed by moral conformity or behavior modification. You can polish a brick over and over, then lay down more bricks on top of bricks, but nothing is ever growing. It’s a pile of heavy stuff that has shape but no soul.
Most especially no one has ever been shamed into Jesus. If following God has been painted as an “everything-or-nothing” do-or-die commitment, of course you’ll hate it. A guilt-trip might work in the short-term, but sustainable faith is always empowered by grace.
I know, we’re afraid of grace. It’s freaking uncomfortable to think we’re letting someone “get away” with something. But how exactly do we think people will change? By beating them into submission with religious fervor? By conveying a God who is waiting for you to fail? That’s a puny, horrible, diminutive God that no one would ever follow.
True change always happens when we’re motivated by a God who loves first. The beginning and end of God’s every motive is love. Even His wrath is loving because He hates injustice and oppression. The lie in religion is that we can win God somehow, when God has already come to us through His Son. It’s all by His grace. God loves you, He loves you, He loves you. No past sins or future disobedience will cancel it; God’s mind is already made up about you. You can’t change that in Him no matter what you do, and it’s His unchanging heart that changes you.
No one ever walks into a room with a clean slate and an empty cup. When a preacher is preaching consequences, most of the room is still living through them. It’s like throwing desert sand to the thirsty.
We can never assume people in a room are not hurting. While everyone has certainly sinned against someone else, and we should address that, everyone has also been deeply scarred by sin. Both offenders and victims need reassurance and restoration.
A small example: You can say unforgiveness is an evil heinous sin, so you better forgive people. But if I could sit down with every single person who has been hurt, I would be very tempted to call their situation the exception. There are some horrible stories — rape, shooting, stabbing, fatal robbery, crippling assault — where I’d be more than happy to help them retaliate.
Yet the lie of unforgiveness is that people think it works. It does not. It’s only allowing the person who hurt you to keep hurting you. It’s allowing the knife of the wound to stay in, fester, and get infected. Removing the knife doesn’t mean that what happened to you isn’t wrong. Of course what happened is wrong, and God knows it. But forgiveness is to set you free from the wound.
The more subtle lies underneath this is that somehow God let this happen because you deserved it and that this hurt will determine who you are for the rest of your life. Neither are true. In a broken hostile world, God is with you every step of the way, and He actually wants you to have peace, joy, and hope. It’s why Jesus had to die — for a sinful people — and it’s why Jesus was glad to die — because He loves you.
So it’s not simply that you’d let the wound heal, but that the step forward is to be able to breathe again, smile again, laugh again, serve again, be joyful again. With that picture in mind, those who are traumatized can see past their pain into a better future for their world. A pregnant teen, a husband whose wife left him, a young kid about to serve thirty years in prison, a guy who almost overdosed, a mother who just lost her child — all of them need a new chapter, not a visual of the old one. Flip the page.
Sometimes sin just looks better. Who has never thought this? Honestly, sin can look awesome. In our culture it’s glorified so much that we’re practically marinated in an atmosphere of sin-awesomeness. Every sweaty advertisement, every titillating commercial, every half-naked billboard — on and on, we see the pleasures of sin. It’s not your fault that you’re bombarded daily with upside-down messages.
But these messages are telling you half the story.
A small example: Getting high. I get it, it’s fun. You’ve heard in church that drugs are bad, but it doesn’t feel bad. For a while it feels pretty good. But I’ve been in a mental hospital with a session for addicts before, and I’ll just say: the end result of drugs is not pretty. I didn’t go home hoping to grow up like them. God had so much more for them, too, and I still believe He does. It’s just sort of hard to have loving relationships, hold down a job, and to honor God when you’re desperately running after the next fix. You can’t have both. It’s not simply that “drugs are bad,” because I can see the appeal, but that even moderate use means you’re holding yourself back from real freedom.
Let’s get this part right, though: you need to know if it’s really sin. Seriously. Christians can be so somber and fussy about all kinds of situations that are probably harmless. We also need a proper context of these things. A naked body is a good thing: God created it, He made the nerves in our body that respond to it, and He gave us organs that follow through on that response. The proper context of a naked body is marriage.
We rationalize “sleeping around” as freedom because we think our body needs this sort of reckless venue for pleasure. But after a while, that’s sort of shallow and superficial. It’s really missing out on the Big Picture. A committed, covenantal promise to be forever faithful to a husband or wife in a stable family unit of sacrifice through every season always leads to the best sex ever. That’s an ocean-deep foundation of nourishing goodness that makes anything else pale in comparison. God wants to give you the real thing, not a cheap imitation. It’s like holding a candle to the sun.
Our culture still celebrates the fifty year marriage because the couple got over feeding their ego and physicality and chemistry-based, self-serving, hormonal ideas of romance: and they actually loved each other. Even Hollywood is mostly still infatuated with the “family man” who settles down and loves his kids and is faithful to his wife (and is really a top secret spy).
Being free does not mean that you maintain an image to sell yourself to the nearest sexual object to satisfy your flesh for a minute, or to play the paranoid game of “I better keep this up or he/she will leave me.” Being really free in a marriage means you have an unfailing love that is stronger than every hardship in life, stronger than your feelings, and big enough to grow you into God’s glorious vision.
The main issue is that rationalizations only go halfway. They sell yourself short. If you carry them through to a logical conclusion, the lie is exposed. Any exposed lie loses energy and momentum and becomes ridiculous.
I believe the Bible did say, The truth will set you free. Free for self-abandoning joy, free to lovingly serve, free for recklessly glorifying God.