The Sea in Which You’re Drowning Is Not All That’s Real

On (not) writing about sin.

Recently I’ve had multiple offers, all from friends representing publications and ministries I greatly respect, to write articles about pornography. I’ve declined all of them. After I wrote a piece on this for Desiring God in July, I made a resolution with myself that I wouldn’t write about pornography for the foreseeable future. For the past several years I have written thousands of words about it, encompassing everything from my personal testimony to American culture. It’s time for me to leave that topic alone for a while.

Because I’ve said all there is to be said on it? No, of course not. There is much more to be said. Because my views are changing? Definitely not.  Because it’s not as important as some people think? Hardly. If anything, it’s more important than most people think. Why then am I putting myself on a moratorium on this issue?

Because the sea in which you’re drowning is not all that’s real, and realizing this is crucial for those struggling in the fight against lust.

When you’re in the throes of addiction, nothing seems real except your addiction. Incremental victories over your addiction don’t necessarily change this. In fact, such victories can actually make this perception worse. Every heartfelt prayer becomes a prayer for God to deliver you. Every sermon is “really” about your struggle. You see all of life through the lens of this one sin that you are, by grace, making war against. It becomes the main metaphor of your life, the fact that stands like a ghost between you and every relationship, between you and every ministry opportunity.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Christian culture, at least evangelical culture, offers much to fight against this. There’s a profound streak in evangelical discipleship of reducing the Christian life to the number of days you can go without sinning. This kind of mentality inflames the sense that beating porn is all that matters. The tragedy is that this mentality blocks many of the very strongest graces that Christ offers in the war against lust, graces like fellowship with other believers (not just “accountability”!), the beauty of nature, losing oneself in an honest pleasure, etc. These are graces that are hard to see for the person who feels like their entire Christian existence is about defeating pornography. A one-note emphasis mutes the other sounds of the symphony of redemption.

The reality is that one of the most effective things a person who is struggling with pornography can do is get their mind out of the perspective of them and their computer (or phone). Look at the broader picture. Look out the window, up into the clouds. Realize how much God has created and how much God is doing in this massive, amazing universe.

So I don’t feel pressed to talk more about the sin of pornography right now. Rather, I’m pressed to take a larger view and infatuate my heart with Christ and all that he is and does for me.

I am convinced that the only people who see lasting, significant healing from the bondage of pornography are people who feel in their bones the grandness and the glory of God, a feeling that transcends (but does not exclude) the tug-of-war. The tug-of-war is important, and failing to tug has eternal consequences. But the water in which you’re drowning is not all there is, and the first thing you must do to stop drowning is to swim upward, towards the air, towards the light, where you know there’s a shore.

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Letter to a Disappointed Graduate

Dear new college graduate,

I’m supposed to start off by saying “Congratulations,” but I doubt you want to hear that right now. If I’ve understood you correctly, today doesn’t feel like a victory to you. You say you’ve wasted most of the last few years. You’ve say you’ve been selfish, lazy, and unkind. You say for too long you were hung up on pornography and video games, and that your graduation today is mostly due to the kindness and forbearance of professors and the intervention of family and friends. Today, you say, feels good, but as you watch your classmates celebrate their high GPAs, their entrance in grad programs, and their lives that look way more fruitful than yours, all you can think about is how behind you are.

I imagine you’re frustrated at the kind of responses you get when you express this feeling to most people. I can hear in your voice a seriousness about the regrets of the past that I know from experience most Americans are deeply unable to process. I reckon you’ve been told everything from “Well, college is when you’re supposed to mess around, now it’s time to get serious,” to, “Live with no regrets,” to, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” (That last one deserves to be permanently affixed to something flammable) We modern people disagree about a lot, but the one thing we all seem able to agree on is that nothing is worth regretting, and that positive thinking is far more valuable than grief and guilt.

Everything in you is screaming that this attitude is nonsense, isn’t it? That’s because it is nonsense. The grief and regret you carry over bad that you did and the good you left undone are not your enemies (at least, not yet). Just like hunger points to the existence of food and desire to the existence of sex, shame points to the reality of sin. What you are feeling is sorrow over your sin. Don’t let misguided Christians tell you that sin in college years is insignificant. Your own conscience tells you that’s false, and in fact I could share with you a lot of stories of people I know whose youthful lusts did not stay youthful. Talking your shame down with meaningless platitudes won’t help you, as I think you know.

The reality is that a lot of people want to take college students seriously without actually taking them seriously. They want to traffic in cliches about the “next generation” and “your utterly unique place in history,” but they don’t want to hear stories about frat boys whose athletic scholarships couldn’t keep them from getting addicted to opiates, or about the National Merit scholar who seriously contemplated suicide when she realized her grades were slipping. I understand why they don’t want to hear these things. They don’t have the resources to respond well to them. Anything bad that happens in college is always the fault of “the system,” or can be solved with medication. In college there are plenty of paid counselors available to help you understand why it’s your parents’ fault, why it’s the patriarchy’s fault, or why it’s your brain’s fault.

But, happily, you know better than that. You know it’s your fault. You are reckoning with the shame. I am proud of you for doing this.

The thing about shame, though, is that you’ve got to do something with it. You can’t hold onto it forever. Some people try to hold onto it  because they don’t know what else to do, or because the regret and the anguish can be hidden in a way that real change and real reconciliation can’t be. This is a recipe for self-destruction, and I know you realize that. You don’t want to flippantly dismiss the shame and regret you feel over the last few years, but neither do you want it to swallow you whole. That’s where you need to be.

Some of the shame you feel is about academics. You didn’t always try your best (in fact, you say you rarely did). You weren’t thankful for the opportunity to live in a community of learning. You didn’t take advantage of your world of books, lectures, discussion, open professor’s doors, and late night conversation over pizza or coffee. You say, with admirable transparency, you were probably in your room watching porn while these things were happening. Now, you say, you’ve realized that walking across that graduation platform is almost certainly the last moment you will ever be in a season of life like that one, and your heart aches for the books you didn’t read, the papers you didn’t turn in, and the conversations you didn’t have.

Some of the shame you feel has to do with relationships. This is painful stuff. It’s absolutely wrenching to realize that some of the friends you shared memories with in sophomore year are no longer on speaking terms with you. You say you know it’s mostly your fault (though you are honest and humble enough to admit there were a lot of two-way streets). You were so consumed with yourself in those years that you hurt others and barely registered their pain.

And then some of the shame is just about the future. You don’t feel prepared. You don’t feel enriched for the last few years. You feel behind, almost as if you’re starting over from scratch. That GPA isn’t going to change, and employers and graduate school departments know it won’t. You told me that your mom and dad have offered to let you stay with them for a bit while you work out your next steps, but you say you’re too embarrassed to do that while many of your friends are moving across the world, or getting married, or starting med and law school.

I know this hurts. I know it does. You’re being honest, and that’s good. You know the truth about yourself. But you need to consider the whole truth, too.

The whole truth is that, at one point over the last few years, you say you came to Jesus. You say God broke you over your sin and you cried out to him, not just to save you from the power of the sins that enslaved you but from the justice that you felt in your soul you deserved. In that moment you saw God for who He really is: all-beautiful, all-loving, all-kind, all-powerful, all-just, all-compassionate, all-knowing. You saw God for the glorious One he is, and you knew in that moment that he was the source of all beauty, all kindness, all power, all compassion, and all knowledge. He was the sun that every beam that ever shone on your soul was looking for. You didn’t find him, but he found you. You knew you didn’t deserve it, but you knew he was giving it anyway. He offered his life in exchange for your death, his death in exchange for your shame.

And you took it.

I’ve got good news, my friend. There’s no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. You are new, and the old things have passed away. You were dead and have been raised back to life again. You are forgiven and free.

Here’s what this means:

-It means for you all the knowledge in the world starts not with your GPA but with Jesus Christ. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. You are no longer a student at college but you are barely a freshman in God’s wisdom. So, read. Talk. Listen. Get coffee at 8pm. Get dinner and talk about the movie. You aren’t in college anymore, but you are still learning. Wasting years in college does not mean you have wasted your mind forever, because (spoiler alert) college isn’t the end all, be all of education. God is giving you a richer portion in himself than you ever had in the classroom without Him. Take advantage of him. Pursue truth, beauty, and goodness.

-It means that no amount of pornographic images can withstand the red-hot beauty of Christ. You are not doomed to live forever with shameful memories. Your mind can and will be renewed day by day, and one glorious day soon the hands that built the Milky Way will touch your eyes and every wasted, selfish second will evaporate like water on a hot iron, never to be known again. Walk in the victory you’ve already experienced, because it really is victory. You are free indeed. Become what you are, invite others into your life to help keep you from sliding back into old habits.

-It means that your future is more secure now than it ever has been. I honestly don’t know what you’ll end up doing in life, but I know that God has pledged to work everything for your good. Don’t be ashamed to receive kindness from your Mom and Dad while you look for a more permanent situation. Don’t mooch off them, but don’t reject the healing power of family either. You are not a failure because you need people who love you. Don’t be enslaved to economics. Trust the Lord, work hard, show up on time, don’t talk yourself out of opportunities. If God can raise you from death to life, and if he can send your deepest shame to the bottom of the ocean, can’t he give you a career? Be so in awe of the love being shown to you that you forget to compare yourself to others. This can happen!

Friend, I hope this encourages you. I love seeing what Jesus is doing in your life. I know college isn’t what you hoped it would be, but I know the future is more already glorious than you could possibly hope it to be. You are loved, you are purchased, you are commissioned. You are alive.

Congratulations!

Churchyard Faithfulness

The cure for evangelical celebrity culture is to remember our own death.

I haven’t stopped thinking about Andy Crouch’s piece on Christians and celebrity since I first read it. Two reasons for this, I think.

One: I have spent several years now in Christian institutions, movements, and networks that are particularly afflicted with this problem. In many of our strongest, most trendsetting evangelical people and places, platform is what matters above all. The rat race is on. Even spaces that purportedly exist to train future ministers adapt a ruthlessly celebritarian mindset when it comes to how their stuff is run. In every situation where I’ve experienced this, there was a total lack of self-awareness as to the culture this mindset was creating. Everyone was in denial. Gospel-centeredness was supposed to make us immune to that sort of thing…right?

Two: My Dad was a pastor for over twenty years. His legacy is one of faithful obscurity. That hasn’t always sat well with me. I’ve struggled with the idea that my Dad’s war wounds in tireless ministry (in 20 years of pastoring, we took one (1) 2-week vacation as a family; no sabbatical, no furlough, no breaks) somehow will mean less than the blogs and podcasts of M.Div. students who were fortunate enough to be social media savvy at the right time in American evangelical history. Watching a Spirit-filled, Jesus-obsessed, family-treasuring, church-serving father has challenged my instincts about what matters in conservative evangelicalism.

So, Andy’s piece resonated deeply with me. Please don’t get the idea that I write as somebody who think he’s “above it all.” Quite the contrary. Just last week I had to pray earnestly that God would help me rejoice with friends who were rejoicing in their growing platforms. Jealousy is pathetic. I could not possibly recall all the ways that I am blessed beyond measure right now, but I still have to hit my knees to avoid bitterness at friends (friends!) who seem to be getting what I want and don’t have.

That’s the point. A cavernous thirst for more success, more publicity, more book deals, more Retweets, more “Likes,” more speaking invitations…all that is perfectly ordinary. It’s perfectly worldly. It’s the way that successful and ambitious people have to think if they want to get ahead. It’s not shocking that CEOs do this. It’s shocking when disciples of Jesus Christ do it too. In the world, such an attitude is normal. In the church it is (or should be) spiritual warfare.

Andy’s essay is an alarm that something is broken, not being fixed, and has destroyed much and will destroy much more if we don’t repent. I believe this. I believe that the half-dozen scandals of conservative evangelical churches and movements that I can think of merely as I’m typing this are a warning. The brokenness is not in our theology, it’s in our desires. It’s not the people who rarely or never go to church, it’s those of us who scramble to go to every conference. We need more visits to graves. We need a churchyard faithfulness.

Churchyard faithfulness is the gospel among the tombstones. It’s ambition that’s pointed down, not up. Churchyard faithfulness is the non-extraordinary, non-Instagrammable, non-TED Talkable life of quiet obedience, patient chastity, behind-the-scenes generosity, anonymous service, and low-profile Christlikeness.  It’s the sanctification of memento mori: Remember your death, and live your life and position your joy as if no one will be able to find your tombstone in a churchyard 100 years from now.

Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is more than a beautiful poem. It’s a manifesto about the kingdom. In the poem, Gray observes a collection of anonymous, seemingly unremarkable graves. Do these unremarkable graves reveal meaningless lives? On the contrary:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
         Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
         The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
         And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
         The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

The picture attached to this post is of a church my wife and I passed on the way home from an Easter dinner. The church’s parking lot was closed for some reason and the grounds are right off a busy highway, so unfortunately the best I could do was slow down to look and let her take a picture. The beauty of the sight smote my soul. The church was small but its white steeple contrasted against the grey churchyard in a way that exploded with spiritual meaning for me. I felt there was something deeply correct about a graveyard connected to a church. The two places seem to exist in harmony.

The virus at the center of evangelical celebrity culture is the virus of mortality forgetfulness. Churchyard faithfulness is not fun. It may not let you buy your dream home. It won’t ensure that people know your name (in fact, it may prevent it!). But churchyard faithfulness is the faithfulness that lives in the shadow of mortality. It’s reined in by the humility that comes from considering how well the world runs without you and how well it will run long after you are an Ancestry.com pop-up. The sight of the churchyard makes the rat race feel ridiculous. That’s how we as Christians need to feel about it.

Churchyards are hard to find nowadays. The modern church planting movements don’t see much value in them. But I love how Russell Moore once described the spiritual value of graves on church grounds:

When you get a moment, find an old church graveyard and walk through it. Not for the goose bumps or ghost stories, of course, but to remind yourself of some matters of eternal weight. Walk about and see the headstones weathered and ground down by the elements. Contemplate the fact that beneath your feet are men and women who once had youthful skin and quick steps and hectic calendars, but who are now piles of forgotten bones. Think about the fact that the scattered teeth in the earth below you once sang hymns of hope–maybe “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder I’ll Be There” or “When We All Get to Heaven.”

They are silent now. But they will sing again. They will preach again. They will testify again.

Those singing voices are not the voices of the platformed. They’re not the voices of the supremely talented, the exceptionally skilled or the really, really ridiculously good looking. They’re the voices of the kingdom. They will one day inherit the earth. And at that moment we will swear we knew their names all along.

The Purifying Effect of Pleasure

Learning from C.S. Lewis’s demons about loving well.

One of my favorite parts of The Screwtape Letters is a section from the senior demon Screwtape, advising his “junior tempter” Wormwood to make sure that the human he is attempting to divert from God doesn’t cultivate many personal pleasures:

I myself would make it a rule to eradicate from my patient any strong personal taste which is not actually a sin, even if is something quite trivial such as a fondness for country cricket or collecting stamps or drinking cocoa. Such things, I grant you, have nothing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them which I distrust.

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the word, for its own sake, and without caring two pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food,” the “important” books. I have known  a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

In other words: The more a person learns to love things because they are lovely to him, and not because they make him look better or advance his sense of ego, the closer they are to a true kind of humility. The man who loves every film that all his friends seem to like too may not actually be loving the art itself, he may be loving the satisfaction that comes when his peers authenticate his loves. In this instance, the object of love is not the film, nor even really his friends, but himself.

It may sound at first like Lewis is urging a kind of individualistic self-assertion. But that’s not true. What Screwtape dreads to see is not an isolated, self-focused, contrarian human existence (on the contrary, such ground is fertile for demonic success). What Screwtape fears is a human who finds genuine pleasure in things that do not rebound to his own glory. In this kind of moment of authentic delight, a person experiences a crucial reality of the kingdom of God: The things that bring the most happiness are the things that bring us out of ourselves.

The Italian poet Dante interestingly differentiated between a lustful love of the other, and a love of the self. In the Inferno, unrepentant adultery is punished in hell, but it is punished less severely than other kinds of human passion. Why? Because even sexual immorality with a lover requires a sort of surrendering of the self to the other. It is the “self-lovers” who are closer to the bottom of hell, because their sin is both rebellion against God and a violent disregard of that which is outside themselves.

In our contemporary Western culture, such a strong condemnation of self-oriented love sounds not just absurd, but outrageous. Ours is a therapeutic age that encourages us to live hyper-introspectively, continually discerning “who we are,” “what we want,” and most importantly, “what we deserve” out of life. The mantra of the 21st century is “Only God can judge me,” and in an age of murky religious pluralism everyone knows that God is really a euphemism for oneself.

My generation has no trouble encouraging individualism. The age of Netflix and Spotify is, if nothing else, the reign of the individual, with full power for selectivity and customization without any fear of ever being unable to satisfy preexisting tastes. But that’s not the kind of pleasure that Lewis is talking about. Lewis is not talking about individualistic pleasure, but personal pleasure. Individualistic pleasure seeks to hide from others to protect itself; personal pleasure does not hide, but neither does it demand to be the center of attention. It’s a contentment with what Lewis elsewhere called the “quiddity” of life–a real thankfulness and wonder at the universe, and a recognition of a great Giver.

Cultivating pleasures and interests that we can enjoy alone helps to protect against the instinct to always measure ourselves against others. Enjoying a favorite book that no one would give us props for reading allows to take delight in something truly outside ourselves, to forget ourselves for a moment and receive a gift. Making time for hobbies that won’t improve our resume or get us “Likes” on Instagram helps us to make sure that our personal formation isn’t merely an effort to gain approval and, thus, a sense of self-actualization.

It is fascinating to reflect that even though our modern age enables and incentives “me time,” so much of that time is meant to ultimately rebound in social approval. Perhaps one reason so many modern Americans find their “me time” dissatisfying is that they actually don’t do it well enough. By living life preoccupied by what’s most Tweetable or makes for the most compelling Facebook post, many of us don’t ever actually cultivate habits of rest and contentment. Even our R&R is mostly about working to get approved.

What Lewis prescribes here is, I think, supremely important in a digital age. Looking for joy in things that don’t come back to you in the form of praise or admiration is a spiritual practice. It could very well be that the price of digital distraction will be a widespread inability to really love anything, just an instinct to click, “Like,” and keep swiping. We should heed the words of Lewis’s fictional demons, and learn the freedom of personal, self-forgetful pleasure again.