The Lost Boys

The Lost Boys

One of my favorite parables (and perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted) is the parable of the “prodigal” son. The word prodigal means basically means ‘wasteful.’ Prodigal does not appear in the Bible. Jesus simply tells the story, or parable. Parables are illustrative stories that do not give us much detail, names, dates, or places—they simply illustrate a point. The story of the prodigal son is a story of two lost boys…

Dealing with Conflict

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God (Matthew 5:9).

This earthly life we lead is fraught with misunderstanding, miscommunication, and hurt. There are times when people deliberately hurt us. There are times when people do so accidentally. And there are times when we do one or the other to other people. What comes next is important. It is important to Jesus Christ. It is important to His Father in heaven. It should by all rights, therefore, be important to us. As Christ-followers, we want to be peacemakers not peace-breakers. We see the importance of loving, biblical, Christ-commanded confrontation throughout the New Testament. Matthew 18 is one example:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (Matthew 18:15-17).

Often, but not always, the offense taken is a misunderstanding. That’s why you go to your sister or brother in Christ, privately. Sometimes, your private approach is not well-received or productive. Jesus offers a solution. Bring others into the equation to help (to help you both). The aim here is not embarrassment but restoration. You see this at the end of verse 15—“you have gained your brother.” Why involve others? An extra pair of eyes, or two, or an uninterested third party can bring objectivity to the conflict. This is as much to hold you accountable as to hold the one with whom are in conflict accountable. The aim is objectivity. The goal here is to confirm the facts. You may discover you’ve got the whole thing wrong. Or… they may come to the conclusion through an extra set of eyes that they were in fact at fault. Again, the goal isn’t vindication but the restoration of relationships.

On rare occasions conflict or misunderstanding uncovers deeper issues. This comes through in verse 17: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (Matthew 18:17).” Most of the time this is not the case. Most of the time these are loving discussions between friends or associates. There are times you can look the other way and there are times you must speak into a matter:

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)

There are times we are forced out of love for God and our neighbor to speak into a matter. Once again, the goal is never vindication (i.e. vindictiveness) but the other person’s good and ultimately a restoration of relationships. And, once again, much, if not most, of the time these are small matters. Both passages (Matthew 18 and James 5) also cover serious issues.

Most of us dislike conflict. Most of us just want to put it behind us. However, when we ignore our problems they often fester and get worse—like a cavity in a tooth. Conflicts and misunderstanding require action and effort to resolve. On occasion, we fall into the trap of acting like children, “Well, I’ll forgive them when they come to me begging…” Christ calls us to be proactive. There’s an old saying, “Meet them half way.” Sometimes we employ this adage as an excuse: “I’ll meet them half way, if they will come half way.” Or, we say, “They won’t even meet me half way.” Jesus calls us to a higher standard:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)

The careful observer will notice this comes close on the heels of Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:23-24 indicates if you are aware that someone has a problem with you take the initiative to go to them---there’s no “meet me half way.” Just as God took the initiative to reconcile mankind to Himself in Jesus Christ, we, as His followers, must take the initiative to reconcile others to ourselves—even if they are at fault. No, we are not God. We are not playing God. We are, however, His servants.

Are you at odds with someone? Are they harboring a grudge against you? Have they slandered you? Reach out to them. Show grace, as one who has received grace. Step into the breech and try and heal it. And if you fail? You will have failed during an attempt to demonstrate your loyal love for God and your care for your neighbor by this act of obedience. You will show yourself to be a child of God: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God (Matthew 5:9).” There are worse things to be called.

The Physiology (and Psychology) of Addiction

Regardless of the expense, location, duration and method…rehab success rates hover between 17% and 21% over five years. Don’t believe me? Click here. Which leads to our next question.

How does an addict lose her way (or her mind)? In other words, how is it possible that a drunk or a person addicted to illicit or prescription drugs reaches the point where they will effectively kill themselves and all their relational connections? How does an addict reach the point, cognitively, where they value being high more than family, friends, children, sex, or food, water, and shelter? How is it that they so lose their way and make the choice of remaining on the same destructive path? As a counselor, I’ve worked with a number of addicts over the years. Some ‘beat the habit’ some do not. My previous church was a large church of several thousand people in an urban kind of setting. It had/has its share of recovering addicts (somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 or so). Those who became my friend told a similar story. The needle, the pipe, the bottle, or the pill becomes your very best friend, your closest confidant… like family but better. At times it’s almost a spiritual feeling or experience. How is that possible? How is it that people will forgo shelter, warmth, water, and caring (rather than exploitive) companionship until they waste away and die (by violence, disease, or organ failure due to a host of co-morbidities)?

Why (how?) do they stay on the path to ruin? Let’s try and keep this simple and non-technical. When people are high (or stoned) they feel better, at least they think they do. Then the drug wears off. This requires another dose. With the next dose that good, euphoric (or numb) feeling returns. Life seems better… tolerable… manageable even… less painful. Pain may take many forms, from physical to emotional. What we have here is an attempt to self-medicate. Don’t get me wrong, not everyone self-medicates. Some people become addicts because a person acts like a the chemical tourist who seeks the thrill of seeing the sights through the lens of narcotics. Depending on the drug, repeated trials and tries starts to habituate both body and mind to an altered state that seems desirable. The addiction becomes emotional and physical.

Complicating or intensifying this problem are physiology and biochemical issues. As a person enters into these altered, pleasurable states the body’s glandular system secretes hormones (i.e. like dopamine) that reinforces the body’s desire for this drug and the altered state it brings or induces. Now the mind wants more and the body wants more. We do well to remember the connection between the mind and the body. Like an angry two-year-old throwing a tantrum as the body’s desire for this drug, intensified by the secretion of this hormone from the endocrine system, adds to the withdrawal symptoms (sweats, nausea, anxiety, tremors, etc.). The only way to satisfy the body’s rage is more drugs, resulting in more hormonal secretion, and more mental and physical dependence.

Here’s the tragic catch-22. The more drugs the body gets the more drugs the body wants and requires to recreate the desired effects. The more drugs the body gets the more hormones it secretes. The continues progressively until the body wants more and more quantities of drugs, stimulation, pleasure, and highs. By the way, the same hormonal reaction applies to gamers, tech junkies, etc. Try and get people to put their phones down. It’s not easy. In a different arena people get runner’s high from running. It’s the same type of mechanism. But with drugs, you have the double whammy of the introduction of habit-forming chemicals and the hormones that reinforce stimulation, pleasure, etc. As time passes and addictive forces progress, the conscious mind grows to fear the absence of drugs and their effects. The addict becomes anxious and less stable. The addict’s body becomes crampy, sweaty; nauseous. Like a wild animal on a quest for food, or a person in a desert wasteland on the verge of dying of thirst, the addict begins a determined quest for satisfaction, satisfaction at all costs.

Ever try to reason with a starving lion? Ever try to convince a hungry cougar in the mountains or foothills of California to leave the neighborhood pets alone? Not likely. They are too hungry and that hunger drives them to relentlessly invade residential spaces until they are captured (imprisoned) or killed. That ‘hunger’ must be satisfied for survival, or in the case of an addict, perceived survival. Just like a starving animal, addicts won’t listen, even before their mind is irreparably damaged to the point they can’t. Their appetite for their drug of choice must be satisfied at all costs. It’s as if some primal survival instinct has been triggered. The addict becomes more and more a creature driven by impulse and instincts rather than a thinking, rational, and reasoning being. Human beings, created in the image of God, have an ability lacking in other creatures; namely, will, reason, and the combination of both--wisdom. Drug abuse impairs and eventually destroys both.

Drug abuse damages the will. The addict’s ability and desire to reason, to think; to change are eroded and gradually destroyed. That’s why they will lie, cheat, steal, and kill to get what they want. That’s why they will affirm their need to ‘get better’ and even tell you what they think you want to hear and then do the polar opposite. Addiction, as it progresses, trumps reason. The conscience becomes seared. No amount of reason, persuasion, bribery, enabling, or love will change their behavior. Getting between an addict and their quest for drugs is not unlike getting between a mother-bear and her cubs.  Depending on how far they are down the continuum of addiction, forget about reasoning with them. Your chances are better reasoning with a bear robbed of her cubs.

 What about 12 step programs and rehab? Inpatient, outpatient, and various forms of residency ‘treatments’ last between 21 and 270 days. Regardless of the expense, location, duration and method…rehab success rates hover between 17% and 21% over five years. Don’t believe me? Click here. Twelve Step Programs have similar success and failure rates. People will not change until they surrender their pride. Once they do this, they begin (begin, having not yet arrived) to see things with a tad more clarity. Once pride has been put to death, they need to jettison every person, place, or thing that contributes or has contributed to their drug use in any way shape of form. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says this:

 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Matthew 18:7-9).

 This is about ‘detach and discard.’ Whatever, whoever, causes the addict to drift anywhere near the old way has to go. There are some places he can’t be. Some people he can’t see. But that comes after putting pride to death—not before. Often addicts will ‘relocate,’ forgetting that problems are portable. The addict is the problem and everywhere he or she goes the problem goes, too. I suppose that’s why some commit suicide, ultimately making a bad situation worse (Hebrews 9:27). So, where’s the hope? How does one ‘recover?’

So, where’s the hope? Where’s the upside? How is it that we do in fact hear ‘success stories?’ Success stories are the exception as opposed to the rule. For every seemingly miraculous rehab and recovery there are at least 5 to 10 fails. Why is that? In a word, choices. Most people don’t see rehab through to the end. There are many reasons. First, and foremost, you don’t break a bad habit (that’s what addiction is at its root) in a month. It takes six weeks to form a habit. Most of the habits most people form are not intensified by drugs and further complicated by body (and or brain) chemistry. Another reason for the high failure rates is ‘friends.’ People seldom if ever abuse drugs in a vacuum. There is a drug crowd that is only too happy to affirm, sponge off of, manipulate, and otherwise aid and abet addicts. This includes their new ‘sober friends’ they make in rehab. Hopefully, they never see them again. Why? Because most of them will return to addiction and drag the addict with them. Let’s not forget the enablers who for various reasons keep bailing them out of trouble delaying any chance of the addict hitting rock bottom. There’s almost always a family member too inclined to believe the line “I really want to change this time…” or believes the addict is a good soul who’s just making (or made) a few bad decisions. It’s a sad thing. But the enabler continues to bail the addict out providing money, goods, shelter, and an endless supply of second chances that delays hitting bottom. The addict must hit rock bottom if there is to be, humanly speaking, any hope of turning things around.

The main impediment to hope and recovery is the addicts own pride. Pride can be more lethal than any drug. Every addict thinks he’s in control or can handle it. Failure is never their fault. They never get what they deserve. Someone, something, made them what they are. They are not at fault. Also, there is a tendency in some circles to refer to this as issues of low self-esteem. This is also a deadly idea. Invariably, addicts esteem themselves too highly, bringing us back to ‘pride.’ If you haven’t read the previous article do so here. Until the addict hits rock bottom, pride will prevent rescue and redemption. The sooner they hit rock bottom the better. The self-esteem excuse is an enabling one that delays ‘rock bottom.’ Think about it. If a person is truly self-loathing, with low self-esteem, how does her or she elevate himself or herself above the law, to godhood, granting themselves the right to break the law, steal from others, rob others (acts of violence), or insist that others tolerate their aberrant behavior.

Back to hope. Hope requires a changing in thinking and a change in direction. Of the 17-21% that make it (that’s less than one in five) there is what some call a ‘significant emotional event (“S.E.E.”).’ They have a moment where they do the proverbial ‘hitting rock bottom.’ They come to the end of themselves. They see that they are the problem. Hitting rock bottom, they get so low that there is no way to look but up. A small selection of the 1 in 5 exercise sheer willpower and stop repeating the insanity. In AA many of these folks end up as “dry drunks.” What’s this mean? It means that they control their outward behavior but the root problem still remains and they are often irritable folks who feel like they are perpetually getting over a hangover but have not had a drop to drink in days, weeks, or years (‘dry’ drunks). This is one reason that the failure rate is so high. The dry drunk type is more likely to ‘relapse.’ The biblical analogy for the dry drunk is putting a fresh coat of paint on a tomb full of dead man’s bones. The outside appears nice but inside it’s still filled with dead man’s bones (the junk that bent their thinking in the first place, to appropriate a metaphor). The change is outward, not inner. As long as he or she stays in AA they may stay sober. The other S.E.E.’s are religious is nature. For some that’s ironic. Many drug addicts go from atheist to person of faith. Why is that?  When you think about it, you never really hear anyone say, “Hey, I became an atheist today and it changed my life, I overcame my addictions from the inner strength provided me through atheism.” Atheism devalues human life, reducing it to the level of animals and insects. Faith is another matter. There’s more than just your being here by accident. Every human has a purpose… and a hope.

From my vantage, not just any religious experience will do. There are many religions in this world but all religions fall into one of two categories. The most popular category is the religion of human achievement. That’s where humans bribe, appease, or manipulate their gods by doing something for them to get a pay out of some kind. It’s a give to get thing. These acts range from human sacrifice (Aztecs, Incas, etc.) to some ritual or another. People trick or manipulate god into doing their bidding. They change god and curry his favor. Considering the success 17%-21% success rates of rehab and addiction programs, it doesn’t seem likely that human achievement is the way. The religion of human achievement includes many denominations. Islam requires you to please Allah by performing the 5 pillars of Islam. Hinduism requires you to achieve Nirvana by doing good deeds and changing your cosmic station in life through reincarnation. You keep doing good to you evolve out of your miserable state. Buddhism involves some form of self-perfection. Self-perfection? Know any perfect people (17%-21% of recovering addicts were never perfect). When you really think about it, how could anyone be good enough, perfect enough, wise enough, or manipulative enough (or rich enough) to bribe god, manipulating the one who created them. How many mantras do you have to chant? How much penance to you have to do? Can any human go a day, a week, a month or a year without acting selfishly? So much for the religion of human achievement. Then there’s the religion of divine achievement, where God does something for you that you cannot do for yourself—particularly since you don’t deserve it (i.e. human achievement). That’s Christianity. You know:

16“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19“This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20“For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21“But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” (John 3:16-18)

 God sent His Son, Jesus, to die in your place for your wrong-doing and rescue you. Through Him, God offers hope, healing, and restoration—salvation… redemption. You don’t earn His mercy. You don’t earn His forgiveness (it’s a gift). Basically, you put your trust in God not in you. You believe He can save you and you surrender your will, your rights, to Him. He does the heavy lifting. Sure, you cooperate but He’s done the hard work already. You enter into a life changing relationship with God. He knows your thoughts so you can’t manipulate Him. He knows your needs before you ask.

 The religion of divine achievement is simple in truth but hard to believer. He offers every single human being, no matter who they are or what they’ve done forgiveness as a gift. But… and here’s the problem… He only grants forgiveness and life change to those who will be humble enough to accept it on His terms. So much for pride. You recognize you don’t deserve anything but hell on earth and hell in the life to come and ask Him for the gift (like a beggar). He promises to give you eternal life and real and lasting change. He doesn’t change you all at once but little by little as you learn to trust Him more and more.

Embrace the religion of divine achievement and let God change you. You don’t work to receive forgiveness. But afterwards you respond by working to honor it. It’s counter intuitive, yes. But we know what doesn’t work, right? All the previous failures point to what doesn’t work. Maybe your addicted friend is struggling to grasp this. Maybe you are. Maybe it sounds unbelievable. But you already know what doesn’t work, right? After all, maybe you’ve tried everything but this?

How do you do this? Where do you start? Start here (invest 5 minutes).  what have you got to lose? Are you an audible learner? Try here. It’s the same story, expressed differently. Basically, it comes down to this. You’ve got to want God more than air—more than drugs and be willing to go where He would and will take you. There’s no half surrender. Just as a half-truth is a whole lie, a half surrender is no surrender at all.

Like an enemy combatant or terrorist, you’ve got to lay down your arms and trust God. Then you learn to walk and grow as a Christian in baby steps because you will have embraced the truth and the truth will set you free. Once you enter into a relationship with God in Christ (by faith… trust…) your world will begin to change—your eternal destination already has. God will provide you new ability, empowering change.

Some will say, “but I’ve done the Jesus thing before…” Have you? Have you really? What was your motive? Often people get emotionally and want escape more than they want God. That’s not the same thing as surrender to Christ. It’s just another form of (attempted) manipulation.

Believing in God isn’t enough. The Bible says even the devils believe in God (James 2:19). Knowing you are thirsty and actually drinking the water are two different things. Wanting Him is different. There’s no negotiating, only surrender. There’s no half surrender. Think about it. By now many will have tried meditation (emptying your mind), yoga, diets, positive confession, etc. Did it work? You tell me. Could it be that not all religions are created equal?

 Real change is supernaturally empowered. When you have really, humbly done business with God things change (2 Corinthians 5:17). If an addict could change or if you could change an addict—wouldn’t it have happened by now? Without God lasting change is impossible because our problem is, as the Bible indicates, habituated. Humanly speaking, once addiction occurs the cards are stacked against ‘recovery’ physiologically, psychologically, and even sociologically (wrong friends and surroundings). With a failure rates of near 80% in terms of rehab and such, I’d bet on God rather than man. Think about it. What do you have to lose? Really, what does anyone have to lose by trusting God, particularly when life hurts? Next time, the final posting on addiction.  

The Morality of Addiction

Living in California has its benefits, namely weather. It’s also an incredible mission field. The world has come and is coming to California. This is especially true of the Bay Area, Silicon Valley. My neighborhood is quite diverse. It’s up to 40% Indian (from India). There are large numbers of people from China, Korea, and other ethnically similar countries. My is diverse neighborhood. That’s the Bay Area. That’s California. Aside from these wonderful attributes, California has its share of woes. Politically, there’s no social experiment that won’t be attempted. Experiments and programs cost money, so California is taxing itself to death on multiple and many well intended gimmicks (there’s on old saying about good intentions and where they lead). Skid Row in Los Angeles shows the wisdom of California’s social action. Needles, feces, urine, drugs, drug addicts, dead bodies, and homeless people. Most of these people on Skid Row are either mentally disturbed or drug addicted, usually both. By the way, this is “The Skid Row.” It’s been this way to one extent or the other for a long time. It serves as an illustration of the impotence of a gimmicky society to deal with its ills, which brings us to the morality of addiction.

 Today, addiction is considered an ‘illness.’ There’s a great deal of disease terminology applied to addiction. We talk about it like someone’s caught the flu, or a really bad cold—or developed cancer. People are said to have made ‘poor choices.’ Poor choices. Poor choices? Addiction is a disease. A disease? How so? Let’s talk about this.

 Before we do, let’s first acknowledge that when a person moves far enough into the abuse of alcohol, prescription drugs, illicit drugs, etc. they do in fact develop physical symptoms. Too much alcohol leads to liver disease (cirrhosis of the liver). Become too fond of cigarettes and you may develop lung cancer. Smoke crack cocaine or meth and eventually you’ll see your immune system suppressed and degraded (for variety of reasons), you’ll lose weight, become emaciated and start looking like the walking dead. Take hydrocodone or OxyContin for that bad back and take either one too long and you’ll become pain free but you’ll develop other problems. You’ll become sick, diseased. And, tragically, you may be among those who die through suicide, overdose, car accidents (injuring or killing others in the process), or complications associated with the destruction of your body and its vital organs (liver, lungs, brain, et al). You might also die while dealing drugs to buy drugs, by being robbed or attacked by other addicts, or by being injured or killed by law abiding citizens or law enforcement as they prevent you from robbing or harming others so that you can get drugs. Some die from sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s) because they sold their bodies for drugs one time too many or picked the disease up from a shared needle or casual sex with another addict. All of these maladies involve disease, or sickness. Mental illness occurs eventually as one damages his or her brain beyond repair or recovery, which is why most of the people on Skid Row are there, in Los Angeles.

 How did they ‘get sick?’ Where did their addiction-disease come from (this is where the title of this essay comes from)? Let’s have an honest talk about the morality of addiction. Let’s talk cause and effect. Let’s talk common sense. Reality. What led to this heartbreak? In a word, choices. For clarity’s sake, let’s use Methamphetamine as an example. Every Meth addict chose to break the law and buy, steal, or procure and experiment with Meth. They didn’t catch Meth addiction like a cold or the flu, they flirted with it, experimented with Meth, and chose to risk the harm. Think about it. No one ingests Meth, crack cocaine, or heroine because they skipped church last Sunday, or their devotion time that morning. They elected to do what they knew society had outlawed (for good reason) and put themselves (and others) at risk. That’s not a disease. Most people don’t decide to catch a cold, the flu, or develop cancer. However, the choice to do or experiment with drugs is just that a choice. Granted, they will develop disease like symptoms eventually. But those complications associated with addiction are like self-inflicted injuries. Think of it as something akin to cliff-diving. When someone jumps off a 90+ foot cliff in Mexico into the sea below and winds up injured we do not say they were ill. We do not talk about their disease. We might think they are stupid for taking such a risk but we do not think they are diseased through no fault of their own. They, too, made a choice.

 The disease model, so popular today, pretty much fails in the realm of addiction. Why is the disease model so appealing in popular culture and pop psychology? To one degree or another the disease model is appealing because it absolves almost everyone of responsibility. It appeals to the human condition’s sense of victimhood (and entitlement). No harm… no foul… no one’s to blame. It just happened like an accident, a mistake, or a disease. I’m a victim, you’re a victim, we are all victims of circumstance. It’s nobody’s fault.

 The disease model of no-fault addiction (and its abuse) is not unlike the insanity plea in a murder case. You’d have to be crazy to murder someone right? People attempt the insanity plea more frequently than they succeed in successfully invoking and applying it to their murder case. To successfully employ an insanity plea involves proving that at the time of the crime the accused had no grasp on the gravity or reality of his or her actions. They were completely unaware that they were strangling a person or stabbing a person. In essence, they mistook the activity for walking the dog or driving to the corner market for a half gallon of milk. They were totally out of touch with reality to the point they, themselves, had no knowledge of the gravity of their actions. Where the attempt to plead insanity breaks down for people is that usually the murder, the crime, involved stealth, an attempt to get away, planning, and often an attempt to dispose of evidence or conceal involvement. Choices. Decisions. Thought. There’s usually planning, execution of the plan, and an attempt to getaway or cover one’s tracks.

 People buying drugs seldom stand on the street corner and shout at the top of their lungs (i.e. insanity plea) “where can I score some Meth (or crack)?” Drug dealers and drug purchasers typically try and conceal their activity, particularly from the police. What’s my point? They know what they are doing. They know what they are doing is illegal. They know what they are doing is wrong. They are not ill. They are stupid, selfish, or sinful—yes—but they are not ill. Their actions, as we observed earlier, may result in illness, physical and or mental. But they are not ill. Their brains (if not their consciences) are sufficiently functional. It may escalate to mental or physical illness (brain damage, liver damage, etc.) but it’s a choice and an immoral one and illegal one at that. You know: sin.

 What if they don’t agree with the law as it is on the books? Let’s shift gears. I’m a Christian. As a Christian God and His word are my priority. God’s word says in Romans:

 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:1-4)

 Who was the emperor at the times of Paul’s writing (Nero)? We don’t get to choose which laws we obey. Selective obedience is wrong. Peter along these same lines write this:

 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17).

 Who was the emperor in Peter’s day? The same emperor, Nero. This brings us to the morality of addiction. To become addicted to drugs, even alcohol, you had to choose (and willingly choose) to cross a line. You didn’t catch your addiction like a cold. You didn’t contract it like cancer or the flue. You voluntarily took steps to acquire it. Addiction doesn’t strike like lightening. The addict, regretfully, chose to ignore reality and roll the dice with their lives, the lives of those who love them, and the law. And all too frequently for most, the wages of sin, the consequences of their actions is death (Romans 6:23a). Physical death, spiritual death, eternal death, death of relationships… death in all its forms.

 How do people get this way? James 1:13-16 paints a picture of the thought process:

 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. 16 Do not be deceived my beloved brothers. (James 1:13-16)

People like to blame others for their choices. They even blame God. Ultimately, they have no one to blame but themselves. Each person is enticed and lured, seduced, by his or her wrong thinking (desires). They do little ‘what if’ dress rehearsals in their heads. They slowly convince themselves that they will be able to get away with something. And after running a few mental dry runs in their head, they commit their act. They think they will be able to do what others can’t—get away with it without consequences. Verse 16 provides an apt warning and transition to the next verses: “Do not be deceived.’ Paul writing in Romans 1:18-32 confronts us with the reality that people know better. But wanting what they want (instead of what God wants) they concoct all kinds of stories and fables in order to ignore God, suppressing what they know is true. Ungrateful and unthankful for what they have they ignore God and pursue injurious behaviors to the point of their own death and along the way encourage others to do the same.

 So, let’s not talk about addiction as an illness. Let’s talk about its root cause: sin. A willful choice to do what is wrong in hopes that there will be no consequences. To be gracious, there are the 5% of people who become addicted to opiates because they spend months in a burn unit or a trauma unit with horrific injuries. Call that 5%. 95% if the time people choose to elevate themselves to godhood and demote God’s will, subordinating it to their own. When you play with fire, sooner or later you get burned. And while 12 step programs and rehab centers are better than nothing, real change starts with repentance (and faith). In the Gospel of Mark we read: “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15). Real change begins with a saving, transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. God the Holy Spirit, speaking through the pen of Paul, writes: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) The path to lasting change begins with Christ. The road afterwards for the addict is a long one. But apart from Christ he or she can do nothing. We all know insanity is doing the same things over and over and pretending things will be different this time. Drug abuse stems from immoral choices, that’s the morality of addiction. But there’s alway hope if we turn to Christ, surrendering our will, our rights, to Him, as God and Savior.



Do All Things Really Work Together for Good?

26 Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because7 the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,8 for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:26-30)

 I’d like to begin by quoting from my son-in-law’s Facebook page.

 Two years ago, today I almost lost my wife...but God had other plans. His ways are always best! I love you, Grace :)

 Ivan is not a Facebook guy. He only began ‘Facebooking’ when Grace, my daughter (then barely 23 and married only 11 months) was almost killed by a careless, neglectful driver who ran a 6 second old red stoplight at a major intersection, running my daughter down, shattering her body, giving her traumatic brain injury from blunt force trauma to her right frontal lobe (hope of personality, intellect, and other higher executive functions) also occluding her right carotid artery, resulting in two debilitating strokes on her right parietal and occipital hemispheres of her brain.

 As a result, her brain injuries, Grace has developed a rare form of life-threatening epilepsy that is largely untreatable and complicated. Ivan turned to Facebook to keep family and friends updated on her progress rather than fielding tons of phone calls. He wrote the statement above on the two-year anniversary of her accident. Today, while aspects of her recovery remain near miraculous, she is largely housebound and susceptible to seizure due to light sensitivity. She also had to learn to walk again (and talk and think). If you want to learn more about them and their lives, click here:

 Grace’s life (and Ivan’s for that matter), as well as my life and the life of our family will never, ever be the same. Due to the complexities of her condition I can only visit Grace for about 30 minutes a week, tops. Her injuries, complications, and medications will abbreviate her life.

 All of this begs the question: “Do all things really work together for good to those who love God, really?” People have asked that question of me directly, as a pastor and her dad, both verbally and silently as I continue the ministry here at Hillside Church in San Jose. I was only 5 months into “the job” when she was struck and was forced to commute back and forth and preach on weekends until we could move, she and Ivan up here. My family was in SoCal for 5 months and I was here in the Bay Area. A tough row to hoe.

 What was God thinking. Where was God? I have to confess, I’ve never been angry at God, not for one minute. Neither has Grace. Neither has Ivan, to my knowledge. Why? In short: the big picture. God causes all things to work together for good. And knowing God’s character and clinging to that knowledge like a life raft has been something like my salvation. It’s kept me focused on the big picture.

 Don’t get me wrong. It stinks that my daughter had this accident. Every day is not an easy day. In fact, no days since then have been easy days. I feel older, more tired, and sometimes bone weary. I’m sure Grace, Ivan, Teri, and Anna do too. But as a family, we try and kept hold of the larger picture. God has used this apparent tragedy in a number of ways and ministered to a lot of people through Grace’s suffering. Moreover, “All things work together for good” is not some New Age, or Eastern, mantra. And it’s not some stand-alone Bible verse that anyone should carelessly take out of context. Our strength comes from its meaning and context.

 Let’s consider the passage and its context.

 26 Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because7 the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,8 for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:26-30)

 We cling to what is true, fact rather than feeling:

  1. Verse 26 reminds us (as Jesus promised) we are never alone. The Holy Spirit is in us and with us forever, bearing witness to the fact that God is with us.

  2. Verse 27 reminds us that the Spirit of God not only assures us we are God’s but guides our thoughts and prayers as we seek the Father in prayer, according to the will of God.

  3. Verse 28 reminds us of what is true. Our suffering is not wasted. God, who is sovereign, has a plan for each and every person’s momentary and brief life. We were saved by grace according to the purposes of God to do the works of God, created in Christ Jesus, that we should walk in them (also see Ephesians 2:8-10). Not every path is an easy one. Not all of our callings are the same.

  4. Verses 29 and 30 is the “why” to our peace—my peace. It keeps things in perspective. This life is short, really short, and eternity is long. And eternity is what ultimately counts. God is conforming us to the image of His Son. That’s not a bad thing. Moreover, Grace (and Ivan’s) eternities are secure. As real Christ-followers, we will all spend eternity together with the Savior, in heaven. That’s the sure thing.

 Whether we are rich or poor in this life, well or unwell, whole or disabled, does not matter, really. Life is short on planet earth. Whether a person lives to see 30 or 90, in the scheme of eternity it’s all a wisp of smoke or a mist on a hill dispersed by sunlight and wind. 500,000 years from now we’ll all still be together whole, no longer seeing through a mirror dimly but we shall see Him as He is. And we will see each other as we shall be, with new bodies and callings in our heavenly home, together forever.

 I just finished preaching through the Sermon on the Mount. We are called to lay up treasure in heaven rather than on earth. The stuff of earth doesn’t last. It’s all gone in the blink of an eye or the changing of a light from green to yellow to red to green.

 My peace if found in verses 29-30 and what it says about God implicitly and explicitly. Look again.

29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:26-30)

 Here is found the reality that enables us to see clearly through the ‘fog of war’ in this fallen world.

  •  Those whom God foreknew will be predestined to salvation (vv. 29-30a).

  • Those whom God predestined God called to Himself (v. 30b).

  • Those whom God called God justified/saved (v. 30c).

  • And those whom God saved are as good as glorified already (v. 30d).

My daughter is safe in the arms of God and we will move through this trial into our heavenly home where every tear, every pain, and every hardship will be wiped away. And there we will all be (Teri, Grace, Ivan, Anna, and I) together always… Always whole, always safe, always at peace; always with joy—always with Jesus. Life is good.

 Now, I’m certain some of you may find cause to disagree with me theologically. That’s too bad. And for those who struggle with this concept of God’s sovereignty in all things—even our salvation—I’ll spend a moment showing you what I mean. Look at verses 29-30. It all comes down to a proper understanding of foreknowledge.

 Foreknowledge has to do with intent now knowing the future. God does not simply know what will come to pass. He ordains it. Foreknowledge in both the OT and NT sense has to do with Him setting His heart among His people. He ordains who will be saved from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8 and Matthew 25:34).

 All those God foreknow God predestined to salvation. And those He predestined to save He called. And all He called He justified. All He called He saved. And those He saved, each and every single one, will be glorified with Him in heaven. That’s good news. There’s hope and peace and consolation in that.

 Imagine if foreknowledge had to do with simply knowing the future, like knowing who would be saved and who would not. Then our passage would make no sense at all and God would be powerless at His core:

  • Some He foreknew He predestined.

  • Some He predestined He called.

  • Some He called He justified.

  • Some He justified He glorified.

Now if all He knew about were saved, there’d be no need for a savior. Then everyone would be saved. That’s not how it works.

 It works this way:

  • All He foreknew, all He purposed to save, He predestined.

  • All He predestined He called (each and every one).

  • All He called He justified (no one slips through His fingers).

  • All He justified He glorified (God does not lose one of them—John 17:12).

 Both my daughters embraced Christ as young girls. They have loved God and loved on Christ throughout their lives since then. And no one can rip them from the Father’s hand (John 10:28-30). Ultimately, all things work together for good for them because their salvation set their eternity and every trial between salvation and home-going is to bring glory to God, good to others, and growth to them. And then after running the race, they will receive the ultimate gift of God’s grace and we will all spend eternity together. Not because we were special but because God is gracious and good—and sovereign. My peace of mind comes from knowing Him and knowing that He is bigger than all my hurts and fears—He’s got His children in His hand for all eternity. And there is peace and contentment and sanity in knowing that because one knows God. There’s more to say. Next time. But it’s true: All things really do work together for good!



What in the World is Expository Preaching (and why should I care)?

I am asked this question often. Depending who you are you either love or dislike expository preaching. The problem is most people don’t know what expository preaching is. Some mistakenly think it is reading a Bible verse and then talking about it, then reading the next Bible verse and talking about it, repeating the process until you’ve run out of time or move through an entire chapter or book of the Bible. If this was your understanding of expository preaching, click here.

 Let’s understand what expository preaching is not. It is not reading a verse and engaging in running commentary, then reading another verse and giving more commentary. That’s remotely like expository preaching. Many people often confuse this practice with verse by verse expository preaching. Yes, expository preaching can include a verse by verse explanation of a passage; however, it is not limited to this---far from it.

Expository preaching is not preaching a word study. Some believe that expositional preaching involved preaching a word study you developed using your favorite concordance. First of all, concordances are not meant to provide you the definition of a word. Concordances are helpful in finding occurrences of a word throughout the Scripture. Secondly, lexicons provide the basic meaning of words (we’ll talk about context some other time). Well-meaning Christians often develop a talk by taking a Sunday or two in order to preach a verse by breaking it down a word at a time. That’s not an expository sermon either.

 It’s not a dry academic exercise (or a boring discussion) where one demonstrates his academic prowess. Preachers should never be boring or dry. Expository preaching ought to be engaging and applicational. In fact, you could call expository preaching applicational preaching. Good expository preaching takes the audience into consideration. It is not necessarily academic (unless preached to seminary professors and students) and it is always accessible to the ‘common, garden variety Christian.’ It’s often exciting and compelling! What is expository preaching?

 Here’s a simple definition of expository preaching. Expository preaching is explaining the mind of God to the people of God using the word of God. After all exposition, according to Webster’s exposition is a “a discourse or an … designed to convey information or explain what is difficult to understand.” The aim of expository preaching is to explain the mind of God revealed through the word of God so that we can understand it (and apply it). The aim of the preacher is to make the word/will of God understood using his Bible so that people can respond to it intelligently and intentionally.

There are many species of expository preaching. One species of expository preaching resembles what we described above. There are examples of textual, sequential, or verse by verse, exposition of a passage or book of the Bible. However, this goes beyond reading and commenting… reading and commenting. It entails finding the flow of thought in the passage and unfolding it. John MacArthur is best known for this style of expository preaching. Some preachers engage in unpacking and explaining the larger thought (or big idea) of a chapter or book of the Bible. Alistair Begg and Mark Dever often do this. Others unload a lesson from a biblical narrative (like Chuck Swindoll).

 But there are other kinds of expository preaching. Some forms of expository preaching involve theme by theme preaching of the Bible (think Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount). There is doctrinal expository preaching where the preacher explains a doctrine of the Bible using the Bible, finding a passage that unlocks it nicely and then cross-referencing judiciously).

Expository preaching can in fact be topical. You can take a passage like Ephesians 5:21-33 and use it to preach on marriage and roles in marriage. You’re not preaching the whole book, just covering a topic from this chapter. You might bring in 1 Peter 3:1-8 to this sermon. It’s topical (and expositional). You could also use Ephesians 4:25-32 and speak to relationships or communication (there are principles for both found in this passage).

The common denominator for expository preaching is that it comes from the text. It comes from the text and not your favorite agenda. The development of an expository sermon involves discovering the meaning (authorial intent) of the passage and making application of it to our lives today. Since God communicated to be understood, we are to understand and obey. The ultimate aim of expository preaching is the spiritual maturity and growth (betterment) of the listener.

 Let’s talk about bad sermons, or bad topical sermons. Many times, too often, the preacher comes up with a conclusion or an agenda then writes a speech and snatches a few Bible verses here and there to make his talk sound biblical. He has an idea and glues or patches in an assortment of unrelated verses or passages out of context. This is what many people think of as a topical sermon. It may be topical but it’s not a sermon—no matter how gifted the communicator might be.

Is expository preaching found in the Bible? You bet! I remember someone trying to tell me it’s not but it is. The two best descriptions of expository sermons in the Bible are found in Nehemiah 8 and Luke 24:27: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:27).” Jesus is the Master Expositor. A longer, lengthier description is found in Nehemiah 8 and reveals where many of our practices in preaching come from today:

 And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand… 4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose...5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 6 …the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (Nehemiah 8:1-8)—-note that last sentence carefully. Why?

 All biblical sermons are expository. They explain the mind of God to the people of God using the word of God, giving the sense of His meaning. And if it was good enough for Jesus and Ezra, (OT and NT), it should be just fine for us. Accept no substitutes. If you want to know and do the will of God and His Kingdom, listen to expository sermons. Again: accept no substitutes.

Sensing the Presence of God

O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether..Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139: 1-12)

Have you every entered a room or a church and sensed the presence of God? Have you ever entered a room and felt that God was not there? How many times do we hear someway say, “I really felt God’s presence today in this service (or in this place or that place)?” I remember hearing a pastor (on television) once say, “I’m about to call down the Holy Spirit on this place!” Have you every considered the implications of such statements?

As Christians we can get a little sloppy with our terminology. Sloppy terminology often leads to sloppy thinking. What do we mean by this? Let’s use a little common sense and logic. We know that God is everywhere present, as we read above. Bible scholars and other theologians call this omnipresence.

We are creatures with feelings. Our feelings don’t always square with the facts. You may enter a room and ‘feel like God is not there.’ Or… you may sense God’s presence. But the fact is your feelings don’t necessarily square with reality. God is always there. There is no place on this earth—-in this universe—-where God is not present.

God is with you when you feel all alone. He is with you when you are having a mountain top spiritual experience. He is there in the hard times too, even in the deep dark valleys (Psalm 23:4).God is always there… always present. He never leaves us nor forsakes us. He never abandons us (Deuteronomy 31:6; Joshua 1:9; Hebrews 13:5-6; Matthew 28:20). God’s presence is everywhere. He is everywhere present.

This means neither you or I, or the pastor on TV, can “call down the Holy Spirit.” You can’t call Him down on a room, or into a situation. He is already there. Says who? Says the Psalmist (above) and says Jesus (below):

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17)

God is everywhere… everywhere present—-whether you sense Him or not. No need to call Him down—-He’s already here. He is with you now. And that is very good news indeed. Be encouraged! Take heart! Cling to what is true!

So what do you do with this information? Pass it on. Speak with clarity for the sake of others, particularly new believers. And rest well—-knowing you are never alone, never on your own, and never without resources!