Friday, April 30, 2010

Do Not Seek Knowledge for it's Own Sake - Let it Lead You to Christ

Excerpt of Paul Washer interview - beware of becoming so "uber-intellectual" that you lose sight of Christ. (HT: Pastor Kevin Williams of Puritan Fellowship).

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Is "Idol of the Heart" a Biblical Construct?

Earlier today, NANC fellow and Counseling Solutions founder Rick Thomas met with Pastor Donn Arms, director of the Institute for Nouthetic Studies, and asked him a question that came out of a discussion on Rick's Facebook group. (The Institute, or INS, is the organization under whose auspices I am studying nouthetic counseling, so Pastor Donn and I have been in contact before. It was a comment he made to me a year ago that prompted the question).

In Christian counseling circles, sermons, and books, it is not unusual to hear "pet sins" or driving ambitions described as "idols", in that they figuratively displace God at the center of one's life. In my own book, a major thesis I developed was that eating disorders, like other addictions, are fueled in part by the sin of idolatry. I quoted Martha Peace, who defines an idol as "anything you want badly enough that you are willing to sin in order to obtain it." By this definition, wanting to be thin so badly that you are willing to self-destruct reveals an idolatrous heart.

Since there is not complete agreement among biblical counselors and writers in this camp on every single non-essential topic, it seemed like a good topic of discussion. Arms, like his colleague Jay Adams, falls at the more conservative end of the biblical counseling spectrum and is a stickler for exegesis. "If you can't find it in a Strong's Concordance, you shouldn't use it [in counseling]," he quoted Adams as saying. If you've been reading this blog for any time, you know how strongly I feel about good hermeneutics.

The term "idols of the heart" does in fact occur in Scripture, as Arms noted, but only once: in Ezekiel 14:3-4. The context was, of course, the wood-and-stone icons that the Israelites continued to hold dear - idolatry is pretty straight-forward in the Old Testament. The problem comes in when we attempt to make a New Testament construct out of the literal/historical meaning of the text. Although Christian counselors are fond of identifying "idols" in the counselee's "heart", a less confusing term according to Arms is to simply label them "sin". (The charismatic equivalent, he said, is labeling demons - the "demon" of lust; the "demon" of bulimia, and "casting them out").

The original writer (David Powlinson) who coined the term "idols" to describe inordinate or sinful priority placed on things other than God did so metaphorically. Since we must be very precise in our terminology when discussing doctrinal matters, Arms said he does not feel using the term "idols of the heart" is a helpful construct in counseling.

I can see his point. It's usually not too hard to get someone to see that her priorities are out of whack if she is engaged in a life-dominating sin. If we are careful to note that we are using the term "idolatry" euphemistically or metaphorically, (ie., "This obsession with ___ has taken over your thoughts and impacted your life in all of these ways. It appears to be like an 'idol' in your life,") I don't see that any harm would be done. However, idolatry is usually seen as the "root" or causal factor behind the sin itself - NOT a Scriptural concept, but rather a Fruedian one - so taking the blunt approach ("This is sin. God's Word says repent. Here's how...") is ultimately more effective.

Although Colossians 3:5 does equate greed with idolatry, we need to be careful not to push the analogy too far. Arms put it this way, "I do not see Paul, Peter, James, or any of the writers of the New Testament confronting people about the "idols in their hearts." I cannot imagine the Lord Jesus approaching Zacchaeus about his 'idol' of wealth, or saying to the woman at the well, "Woman at the Well, you need to deal with this idol of immorality in your heart!"

Sometimes the reality of sin is simpler, starker, and blunter than we care to realize. No need to pretty it up with euphemisms.

To hear the full transcript of the interview and for more great biblical counseling resources, including webinars, subscribe to Counseling Solutions through Rick's blog:

Friday, April 16, 2010

Review: Ed Welch's "Crossroads"

"Crossroads: A Step-by-Step Guide Away from Addiction" is the best resource for Christians with addictions (including eating disorders) I've seen yet. Written by Ed Welch, who holds a PhD in counseling psychology and serves as counselor, faculty member, and director of the School of Biblical Counseling at CCEF, "Crossroads" is a 10-part study guide rooted in his earlier book "Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave".

What makes this book so good is that is speaks directly and yet compassionately to the heart of life-dominating sin. I have read many books dealing with the issue of habitual sin or behavioral addictions from a biblical perspective, but none which cut to the heart of the matter as effectively as "Crossroads". While unflinchingly unmasking the lies and sin inherent in addiction, Welch avoids spiritual-sounding cliches, polysyllabic "Christianeze" terms, and endless lists of verses to look up and memorize.

Are You Still in the Pit? Look Up!

Since "Crossroads" is geared towards individuals still controlled by their respective vices, such exercises would probably scare the reader away rather than help them. (The average addict does not have the attention span to complete a lengthy homework assignment anyway). This book is a valuable first step to help the desperate anorexic or bulimic get to where she IS functioning at peak capacity, and can do the hard work of biblical change. It is assumed that the reader is at the critical or crisis stage, still living as a slave to sin, and looking for hope.

Welch gives that hope effectively, and shows the wanderer how to come home - step by step.

Realizing that you are double-minded is one of the first steps to repenting of an addiction. If something about your drug of choice were not attractive, you would not have chosen it. Welch describes this tension in the addict's heart:

"On one side, you feel powerless. Your world feels out of control, and you are sick of it. On the other side, you think that your addiction helps you manage your life so you have more control. That's why you hate it and you love it. You hate it and you need it. Your addiction is not the friend it once was because it has messed up your life."

This is a man who gets it. He empathizes with the inner torment a bulimic (for example) feels, but he does not coddle the sin. He does not minimize, nor allow the reader to stay stuck in despair or self-pity. He takes you straight to biblical principles which force you, the addict, to make a choice - which kingdom has your allegiance?

Welch immediately unveils the compelling attractiveness of God - "the only One more beautiful than your addiction" - while exposing the Christian addict's paradoxical relationship with Christ: "You know you need him, but you don't necessarily want him - at least not on his terms, which is total surrender." Rather than just prescribing the pat (yet accurate) answer, "repent and pray more", Welch acknowledges how difficult and awkward it is for the addict to talk to God, and coaches her* through it. Discussing the importance of bringing sin out into the light, which the Word does by exposing hidden motives, he notes that the reader's interest in the Bible will be a gauge measuring her desire for change.

Welch emphasizes God's infinite patience with the repentant believer, citing Romans 2:4 early on: "Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?" This is a key life verse for any of you who know the pain of trying to break free from bulimia and failing, again and again. Through the first 4 of 10 steps (I would have preferred he call them "stages", to avoid the connotation with the unbiblical 12-Step programs), Welch takes the reader through the "folly" of addiction; exposes it as idolatry that has mastered the reader by tracing her descent from life before the addiction; notes that the reader has chosen independence from God by her choices; and examines God's gracious response.

He forces the question: how does God speak to the purposes your addiction serves in your life? This is an extremely crucial point in repenting of bulimia or other food-related bondage. Until you submit to God's sanctioned means of responding to pain, disappointment and fear of man, your default mode will always be to turn to the food. The probing, penetrating questions Welch gives under each step's "Take Action" section are designed to help you see your sin through God's eyes, and renew your mind with His Word.

There is a fine line between gentleness and compassion, and sympathizing to the extent that you tolerate or even rationalize sin. Ed Welch never crosses that line.

The Lies We Tell and the Truth of God

In Step 4: Go Public, Welch identified 8 different types of lies addicts tell to cover up their sin, as well as lies they believe about God. "God doesn't care about one's not like I am killing anyone." (Does that one sound familiar at all?) Tracing this defense mechanism back to Genesis 3, he shows how speaking and believing lies not only displays loyalties to Satan, but leads to the "voluntary slavery" of addiction. Once this is established, the groundwork is laid for confession to God (which Welch describes as feeling "like a cool shower after working all day in 100-degree heat"), and repentance - turning away from darkness and the false kingdom to Jesus and the true kingdom.

From emphasizing the trustworthiness of God, Welch then moves seamlessly to a fuller exposition on the attributes of God in Step 5: Know THE God. The addict's ultimate goal is to be transformed into the image of Christ. Since this is only possible if one knows Christ AS HE IS, Welch builds the case that knowing the Person of God is key to victory over addiction. He rightly identifies addictions as idolatry, and encourages the reader that God wants to free her of these idols in His great love and holiness.

God is Not Ticked Off

Step 6: Follow Jesus marks the second half of "Crossroads" and Welch starts to get into some theology - without overwhelming the reader. A right concept of God is crucial to sound doctrine, which, in turn, determines whether changes made will be either biblical or lasting. He opens the chapter with this rhetorical question:

"Have you ever thought that Jesus is good, the Father is ticked off, and the Spirit is a thing - an impersonal force?"
It's okay to admit it. I used to think that way, too. I was a bit surprised to see that impression so succinctly articulated, but Welch then goes on to explain both the mysteries of the Trinity and the Atonement - and why the addict's tendency to minimize sin is so toxic. Welch doesn't just "go there", he camps out there. He owns real estate there. He calls food binges (and related addictions) "expressions of false worship and misplaced loyalties". The only thing I don't like about that sentence is that I didn't think of it first.

Christian addict, you need to repent. God gives you hope, grace, and provides strength. Ed Welch is happy to help spell out the implications of your freedom and how to "let the cross have the final word" in this convicting chapter.

Step 7: Have a Plan lays out proactive means the reader must take if she is truly serious about leaving the addiction behind, and Welch highlights the importance of getting your thoughts under control (see 2 Cor. 10:5, although he didn't cite it). As Jay Adams has noted, often people will seek counseling for a life-dominating problem, but when asked what they have done about it, they will simply respond "I prayed". Prayer is a crucial first step and remains "your most powerful weapon", but Welch points out that practical changes in behavior are necessary. I would suggest that such a strategy as he suggests for a repenting bulimic would include avoiding driving to doughnut shops; grocery shopping with another person; refusing to have junk food and "binge foods" in the house. Accountability by including people in your plan - avoiding privacy - is another weapon Welch advises.

Moving Forward in Love

The final two steps of repentance Welch outlines include loving others and restoring relationships where you have hurt people (biblical confrontation and forgiveness is a critical part of restoration), and responding well when you err. While meaningful repentance will always preclude a true "relapse", a temporary slip back into your old ways need not spell total failure. Welch is realistic about the ongoing reality of sin and the spiritual battle a Christian must face. This is true all the more of one repenting from an addiction - how will you respond the next time you seek comfort in Krispy Kremes instead of fellowship with God? "Failing well" eliminates despair as an option. Welch warns the reader against blaming God (see James 1:13-15); reminding her that everything she does is either leading her from Him or toward Him.

In a thorough section on confession and knowing you are forgiven, Welch explains the danger of interpreting guilt (over failure) to mean, "God is mad at me". This is an important point, and I have never known a bulimic woman who didn't think God was angry and/or disgusted at her. My jaw actually dropped at how accurately Welch described the thought process and proclivity towards self-punishment typical of eating-disordered Christians:
"You impose your own punishment; you stay out of his hair and go to bed without your supper. You decide you'd better not talk to him until you have figured out some way to get your life back on track."
"Was this man reading my diary?" you're thinking.

Welch then goes on to show the folly of this thinking: it leads right back to the path of "pursuing your own kingdom". The subtlety of this lie is one ALL bulimics (and other addicts) need to spot and renounce, long after they have stopped the actual behavior. He spends the remainder of the chapter re-cultivating hope, refining the plan developed in chapter 7, and defining where Jesus is in it. What makes this chapter so helpful is the fact that Welch doesn't pretend that once the addict sees some success in abstaining from the behavior or enjoys a measure of spiritual victory that life is suddenly blue shies and fluffy clouds. Pious-sounding platitudes are notably absent from Welch's writing, as is the idealistic formula of self-help books. While he states from the outset that Christ is the answer and the addict's goal is to live to glorify God, Welch never diminishes the reality of ongoing sin in the believer's life. We're in a battle; and we need a plan - turning quickly to Jesus while feeding on Scripture is a long-term strategy; not a quick fix.

In Step 10: Welcome to the Banquet, we see the object of our hope: the joy that is found in Jesus. By this time, the reader should be able to see fruit that her addictive behavior is giving way to seeking Jesus, and she should be convinced that the battle is worth it. Welch highlights "crossroads" of key Scriptural passages; examples of when God's people had to choose to seek Him in the midst of the desert of exile. He relates this to Christ's temptation in the wilderness, and that His "passing the test" on our behalf enables us to follow Him. He concludes with exhortations to fight temptation by expecting it, maintaining hope, countering it with the Word, and praying continuously - good advice for ALL believers; not only those who happen to be struggling with addictions.

Designed for use in either a small group, one-on-one counseling, or on one's own, "Crossroads" is truly a superb, helpful guide towards biblical repentance from an eating disorder. In addition, Welch himself suggests in the study that you seek counsel from a mature fellow believer - a practice I would always recommend for anyone in the grips of an eating disorder (or other addiction). The shame and secrecy surroundingaddictions make them difficult to confess; but the guidance, prayer and accountability another Christian can offer increases your odds of success in walking away.

The only caveat I would offer about this book is that in the first chapters, it appeared that Welch was not necessarily assuming the reader had a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. The wording indicated he might be writing to seekers, as well as "backslidden" Christians ("If you find yourself shutting down when the conversation turns to God, don't just wait for the conversation to move to something else..." " know different, even if you aren't sure what you believe about God.") If he was not assuming the reader was a Christian, I wondered if a clear Gospel presentation might have been appropriate at that point. However, as I moved into the subsequent chapters, it appeared the reader was assumed to be a Christian (just one who had turned from the path). In fact, most of the folks who will seek out biblical counseling DO fit into that latter category, but the possibility always exists that some who profess to be Christians might not actually be regenerate at all.

If using this book for counseling, I would encourage the counselor to ask all the diagnostic questions and collect extensive data beforehand (as one usually does in a first counseling session). Then, if any doubts remain, engage in what Jay Adams calls "pre-counseling" - essentially evangelism - to make sure the counselee has a relationship with God through Christ before going any further. Chapter 6 of this book offers a great exposition on propitiation that would be helpful in presenting the Gospel to an addict.

If you choose to use this book on your own to aid your fight against bulimia, examine yourself to see whether you are really in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5) before turning to the addiction itself. Do you really know Christ as Savior and Lord? Have you repented, and surrendered your life to Christ on His terms? Has there been any fruit in your life?

If the answer is "yes", yet you are still stuck in the foul pit of addiction, Ed Welch's "Crossroads: a Step-by-Step Guide Away from Addiction" is a wonderfully edifying tool to help you take the next step of faith.

Watch this 5-minute video of Dr. Welch discussing addictions and how to face them Scripturally:

* I always use the personal pronouns "her" and "she", as most people with eating disorders tend to be women. No feminist agenda is implied.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Significance of Christ's Last Words

"...Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)

The Gospel accounts of Jesus' last anguished cry from the Cross raise both questions and provide insights to the armchair theologian. The obvious question this heart-rending verse might raise is "Why is Jesus, in His omniscience, asking this of the Father?" Countless Good Friday and Passion Week sermons have examined this verse in light of the Atonement, and the realization that during those last awful 3 hours on the Cross, God the Father turned away from Christ. He was willingly bearing the full brunt of our sins - the consequence of which is eternal separation from God. He knew this, and out of love chose to feel the full weight of our sin from eternity past.

But let's look a little more deeply at that exact phrase, and examine why Jesus might have sovereignly chosen to use it before fully completing His ministry.

As you probably know, Christ was quoting the first verse of Psalm 22, written by David some 1,000 years earlier. To put it in context, Psalm 22 is "the anguished prayer of David as a godly sufferer victimized by the vicious and prolonged attacks of enemies whom he has not provoked and from whom the Lord has not (yet) delivered him." (NIV Study Bible notes). Okay, so we see the persecution of David as God's annointed, and we already know that he was a "type" of the Messiah Who would later rule eternally.

Here is what I noticed when reading Psalm 22: it is entirely in the first person. It is not quite so easy to spot as a "Suffering Servant" passage as Isaiah's prophetic writings are; David, as the precuser to the Messiah, is writing from his own experience...and using hyperbolic language. Look at vereses 7-8 and see what's going on here:

7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads:

8 "He trusts in the LORD;
let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him."

and vs. 14-18:

14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted away within me.

15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.

16 Dogs have surrounded me;
a band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced my hands and my feet.

17 I can count all my bones;
people stare and gloat over me.

18 They divide my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing.

(Emphasis of 16b mine). This psalm most clearly prophesided what would happen to David's divine Descendant on Golgotha, and Jesus knew it every time He read or heard this psalm sung in the Synagogue. There is no doubt that He was underscoring this fact when He proclaimed the verse 22:1 from the Cross, in far more anguish than the psalm's original author could ever know.

Psalm 22 is similar in many ways to the prophetic psalm 69, but it contains no calls for vengeance such as are found in 69:22-28. Again, I do not believe this was coincidence. Christ's call for His tormentors' forgiveness (Luke 23:34) showcases an almost unbelievable desire for them to repent and thus be pardoned - nowhere in the Gospel accounts do we see Jesus threatening divine retribution from the Cross. The imprecatory psalms do call down God's just punishment on the unrepentant, but on the Cross Jesus displayed only mercy and grace (which was what moved the centurion to recognize His deity in Luke 23:47). Psalm 22 ends with a praise to God and looks forward to future glory; vengeance is completely absent from the text. No psalm is quoted more frequently in the New Testament; and no passage more completely foreshadows Christ's suffering. It was not coincidence that He quoted it on the Cross.

What, then, was Jesus saying? That the Trinity was divided against itself, for reasons He did not understand? No! Substitutionary Atonement was far clearer to Jesus than it could ever be to even the most astute believer. He was obviously affirming, once again, that He was indeed the Messiah by quoting this particular Davidic passage. How the bystanders on Calvary missed this allusion is beyond me - as religious Jews, they were extremely well-versed in the psalms of David. The pointed message was unmistakeable - "I am the One David wrote about. It's all happening, just as prophesied...down to the Roman centurians gambling for My clothing."

It is iumpossible to imagine what exactly Christ experienced when He became a sin offering and bore the full wrath of God - and was, literally, "forsaken" of Him on the Cross. However, we should not miss the significance of His exact choice of that verse in the darkest moment. It is a claim both to Messiahship, and and affirmation of His divinity.