So there is a question in the Bible that is asked about this day. Do you know what it is? It was asked by the apostle Peter and he asked the church this question. He asked it after he expounded the meaning of this day in prophecy. It’s in 2 Peter 3:11.
2 Peter 3:11 – Since everything will be destroyed in this way – we know there is a great fire that envelops the earth and burns off every last vestige of everything that was human – what kind of people ought you to be? Then he answers that question. You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire and the elements will melt in the heat.
You may remember from our discussion last year at the Feast of Tabernacles that we covered this question. We looked at Peter’s answer to it. And we went back, prior to that, in Peter’s writing in the same letter where he was explaining to the church what we need to be doing. Without reading it again, he said that we need to be thinking about four things. I kind of paraphrased them right out of the scriptures. One, he said, was our gift. What has God enabled us to do? Do we know? The second thing he told us to do is to prepare our minds for action. And in the context of his comments, I think the action he is talking about is the action to use the gift that we have discovered in ourselves. The third thing he said was that we needed to commit to a group. We need to have a place where we can use that gift. Then the fourth thing he said was to live for God. We don’t want to be like those returning exiles who returned from Persia to the temple, where they were told to rebuild it and, instead, built their own houses. We need to use our gifts that God has given us to do God’s work and not to do our own.
That’s what he said we should do in preparation for the new heavens and the new earth – eternal life with God. Quite a different list than most of us are used to hearing, isn’t it? We’ve been told we should go to church, we should pay our tithes, we should observe the holy days of God. You know, all year long I’ve been thinking about these four things and what it is that keeps us from doing them – finding our gift instead of ignoring it, using it instead of burying it, commiting to a group instead of being uncommitted – kind of in free float or skipping around – church hopping – living for God instead of getting distracted with our own thing. Do you do that? Are you more into what you’re doing all the time? Or are you more into what God wants you to do with your gift?
Well, I want to ask you this question. If we did a better job of going to church, would that help? Would that help with those four things? If we came to services more? If we sang louder? I think most of us can realize that when we’re talking about our gift and being committed – committed to God and committed to a group – those things are all things that we should do, but those things are not enough to get us where we need to go.
I sit in an office everyday, listening to people talk about their frustrations, their desires, their motivations, their hopes, their dreams, their plans. And that has given me a perspective I never had before about what keeps us from doing what is important to us.
If it’s not more zealous church attendance that’s going to get us where we need to go, what is it? Well, in Matthew 15, some of the Pharisees asked Jesus why they weren’t more punctilious about some of their religious observances – why they didn’t ritually wash their hands like the Pharisees did. And there was quite a long interchange about it. Later on in the chapter, Peter asked Jesus to explain what He was driving at in His answer. And He said, in verse 17 of Matthew 15:
Matthew 15:17 – “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?” You know, if you have dirt on your hands, and you eat, that’s going to go in your mouth and then it’s going to get eliminated out of the body. “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart and these make a man unclean. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony and slander.” Going to church more, washing your hands, following all the rituals – all the external stuff that we do in religion – that doesn’t help with any of these things. And Jesus said, “These are what make a man unclean, but eating with unwashed hands does not make him unclean.” He’s talking about spiritually unclean. Right? And later, He called that same group of people “whited sepulchers” – white-washed graves who looked good on the outside, but inside were filled with the corruption of rotting bodies – unclean.
So, if a person is having spiritual problems, is the solution more of that external stuff? More going to church? Dressing better when we go there? More tithing? I don’t think so. Failure to keep the Sabbath, the tithe, to minimize the importance of doing God’s work – using His gifts, committing to a fellowship group – lack of faith, lack of commitment – all these problems – come from the heart. That’s the problem. That’s what Jesus said. And the heart is also where we feel the pain of loss and where the devil owns us, isn’t it? Is there a connection?
Well, let’s ask this question: What is the heart in Bible talk? It means the whole mind. It means your thoughts, your emotions, the state you’re in, your memory, your motivations, your intentions – everything. So all behavior is born in the mind – or, as Jesus said, the heart – the whole mind.
There is a very insidious belief that afflicts many of us to one degree or another. It’s the same one that afflicted the Pharisees. And that is that the problem is external and we fix it by doing things – washing hands, paying tithes, keeping the Sabbath more strictly, praying for a certain amount of time every day, studying the Bible for a certain amount of time every day. And many of us actually have done these things for years and the peace of God still eludes us. It seems like God’s blessings, for many of us, are still just out of reach. Even though we tithe, we still have family problems. We still have financial problems. We have problems at work or school. We can’t get along peaceably with other people in our own church group. We can’t find faith to trust God. We seem to never have time to use the gift He’s given us or to even look for it – to see what it might be. And that’s because we have never looked at the source of the problem, which is the heart. We have never done the inner work. That’s the title of this sermon, by the way – Inner Work.
Many of us, for years, have relied on outer behavior, hoping that, if we’re just good enough, we’ll never have to go deep inside. But that is not how it works. “For out of the heart comes evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality. This is what makes a person unclean,” Jesus said. So, if we ever hope to be clean, we have got to take a look in there.
Why is it that we can’t get along with our children or our parents? Aren’t these things important to God and to us, too? If we were a bit more strict about our tithing, is that going to help us get along better in our family? No. It has to do with the heart – those problems. Why are so many of us so distracted with work and recreation that we never get around to using the gifts that God has given us in the community? If we’re not willing to let God illuminate our heart – leave no part of our life outside of His reach – there is no solution for these problems. But if we do, then He can help us.
What is the cause of heart trouble? Well, some people would say cholesterol or triglycerides, but I have a different answer for you today. The Bible tells us the cause of the problem. We know that, in the Garden of Eden, the devil turned the hearts of Adam and Eve from God. And the biblical language that it uses says that “he took them captive.” They started thinking his way. And what was the result of that? Well, they lost out on the Garden, didn’t they? And they lost, also, the trust and the love that they had for God. They became afraid of Him. They were hiding from Him. So they were paranoid and guilty and fearful. They lost their peace. And they lost their relationship with Him. And, instead of love for each other, they started blaming one another. So that was a loss of relationship between Adam and Eve. They saw one of their children murder the other. One of the worst things that can happen to people is to see their children die. And then to see one kill the other…I don’t know how you could even measure that. So they lost a lot, didn’t they? They were kicked out of the Garden, and they were put out into a hostile environment, and they had to work hard and toil – whereas they had the perfect situation before. They lost something.
In the book of Job, we see the devil asking God to let him have Job and God agrees. What does the devil do? Well, he takes everything away from him. That’s the first thing, isn’t it? He takes his wealth, his family – his children were killed – his status, his health. We see him sitting in a pile of ashes to try to ease the pain of this skin affliction that he had – whatever it was. Ashes are very soft. So he inflicted great loss on Job. And what was he hoping for? He was hoping, also, for a loss of faith and to break the relationship that Job had with God – to see Job get angry and curse God. What’s interesting is that the one who started this whole thing was God. He was the one who pointed Job out to the devil, we’re told. So He really instigated the whole thing. So God works with us with losses. And I think we could say that He’s trying to help us get stronger. And the devil also tries to work through loss with us. He tries to break us or to tear us down.
What does loss do to people? Do you think the people in Job’s time were any different than the people now? I don’t think so. So we could look at people today to understand what it did to biblical people. And we can look at biblical people to help us understand what it does to us now. Who was the most evil person you can think of? Well, probably in Western culture, we’d say Adolf Hitler. Although Joseph Stalin killed a lot more people than Adolf Hitler. And following him – right behind – was Mao Tse Tung in China and then Chiang Kai-shek is the fourth greatest mass murderer of all time – who was the one that Mao was chasing across China.
But think about Hitler for a minute. We know that he was abused as a child. We know he watched his father abuse pets. He had no empathy for his son or his animals. So we can imagine that Hitler, as a child, had no empathy and had no way to trust, because he never got to learn how to do that. It was probably very dangerous in his house. So he had to fight for himself and become self-centered in order to survive. That is what happens to people who are put in an environment where it would be easy for them to die. They become very self-centered, because they have to to live. So we could say that Adolf Hitler is one who didn’t learn how to deal well with losses as a child.
I had a man who came to me some time back, who was belittling and cursing at his children. He’d been treated the same way by his father. He had never developed a healthy view of himself and he was busy passing that on, unwittingly, to his children. And he described himself as a mean-minded loser – those are his exact words – and working hard to live up to his image of himself that had been beaten into him by his father.
Most of the people in prison have been abused, neglected. They’ve never had a chance to learn to trust anybody. That’s probably the biggest single thing that all the people in prison have in common – the inability to trust. Probably the most studied group of people in all human history – the US penal population. By the way, I am not a bleeding heart for those folks. I believe that we all suffer loss. And some people find a way to suffer loss without hurting others. So suffering losses might be a way to explain what happens, but it is not an excuse.
I had a lady come to me once and she told me that she was selfish – avaricious was the word she used. She always was thinking about money. That’s what her husband told her. “You’re always…it’s all about for you. That’s all you think about.” He said, “You’re greedy.” So she was a good Christian woman, who wanted to not be greedy anymore. She felt very guilty about this. Well, we started looking into her past, and we found a time when she was five, when she was lying in bed at night, listening to her parents argue about money. He had just lost his job and they had just had their third child. They were worried about how they were going to survive financially and they got into an argument about it. And she was taking that all in. That became a major theme for her in her life – how are we going to keep from losing everything? So, when her husband entered into a business deal and lost some money on it, she went off on him. And he told her that she was a greedy, selfish woman.
See how it works? See how we get the way we are? We don’t often realize what’s happened to us to cause us to be like we are – how our heart gets the way it is.
Think about Ananias and Sapphira. People were giving money to support the church because of the difficult times they were having in the community with the famine. They sold their property, and they came to church, and they kept part of it for themselves – which it was their money, right? – and they gave part of it to the church and let people believe that they were giving the whole thing. Peter, guided by the Holy Spirit, confronted Ananias, and he dropped dead instantly. What happened to him? What happened to him when he was little? He didn’t seem to be that bad a guy – just talk about wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing, right? But he was made an example of. We wonder what happened to him. It was so important to them to make people think that they were giving all, when they really just gave part. And Peter even explained to him, “You know, it was yours to give. You didn’t have to give it all.” But the problem was in the desire to look good.
Do any of us have that? How did we get that way? Is it because we’re deceitful, rotten people from the get go? Well, no. We all started out as innocent little babies. Right? But stuff happens along the way to us. So, not making excuses, but explaining how things get the way they get and how the devil has created an environment for us where we all lose things. So the issue becomes, how are we going to deal with losses?
Do you think this is really true? Does that really hold any water? Is that what this is all about? Is it that losses create weakness of all kinds – you know, mental, emotional, behavioral, spiritual, sin? And then recovering from loss creates character, insight, love, health, spirituality? Is that biblical?
Let’s go to Philippians 3, verse 4. Listen to what Paul said. Now here’s a guy talking about loss, right? What right does he have to do that? Well, let’s see.
Philippians 3:4 – If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day – that’s what all good Jews were, right, because in his society, that was a good deal – of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin – a Hebrew of the Hebrews; in regards to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless – always paid his tithes, always went to synagogue – faultless. But whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. He had to give up all that stuff he just was so proud of. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.
That day on the Damascus Road – it was a big one for Paul – bigger than a lot of us realize. I don’t think it hit him right away. But Saul had to become Paul, didn’t he? He had to become a different person. He had to give up his identity – give up who he was and become somebody else. The name change is the clue there. Right? He had to give up everything he valued. And that is so hard to do!
One of the biggest impediments to change is, who am I going to be if I’m not this way? So think about what it was like for him, when he was blinded for three days and told that the people he was persecuting were His people. He had to give up his self. That’s a loss. But he was willing to make that change out – to suffer that loss.
Does anybody know what the two greatest mental health problems are? Well, they are anxiety and depression. They are my bread and butter in my work. Right? You find one or both of these in almost every other mental health issue – often together, sometimes alone. They are really cousins – anxiety and depression. Depression is about losses from the past. And the anxiety comes with the anticipation of future losses. Isn’t that interesting?
Do church people suffer losses? Yes. And are they, then, also anxious and depressed? Yes. (There are) lots of examples in the Bible of anxiety and depression. Is it harder to have faith when we’re anxious? It’s practically impossible. Right? So Jesus said, “Be anxious for nothing” to people who are worried about physical needs. It’s very hard. Is it harder to do what’s right when we’re depressed? Everything is harder when we’re depressed. It’s harder to find our gift and use it. It’s harder to keep the holy days that God tells us to keep. It’s harder to go to church. It’s harder to go toward angry people and make peace. It’s harder to pray. It’s harder to study the Bible. Everything is harder. So the effects of loss hinder Christian life, don’t they? Both God and the devil know this. And so they both use loss – the devil to take us down; God to make us stronger.
I was talking to a man, once, who lived in a…well, there are so many people who live in Big Sandy, Texas, I don’t guess he’ll ever be revealed who this was. In fact, I’ve even forgotten his name, so I can’t reveal it to anybody – but he was telling me, with deep bitterness, about how unfairly he was treated by the ministry of his church. And, as I listened, I agreed his story was accurate – and I’m sure his perspective was very real to him – but to tell his story he had to go back twenty-five or thirty years. And as he talked, the feelings were just as fresh in his mind as the day he was first wounded. He was still just as angry and just as bitter. He’d prayed, he’d studied, he’d fasted and nothing worked. He was stuck. He was stuck in time. His emotions were just like they were back then. And it was hindering his Christian life. All his relationships, his work, his family – his anger leaked out on his kids, his wife, his friends, his enemies, his employers. It tainted all his relationships. It made him an ineffective worker for God.
So what should he do? Most of us really hurt when we hear stories like this and we want to fix it so badly, it’s hard to even listen to it. So, in an effort to take care of ourselves, we say things like, “Get over it,” or “There, there, it will be all right.” But that doesn’t help, does it?
So why do things like this happen to us? And what can be done about it? Well, probably what has happened here is that his experience in church, in some way, is connected to something that happened to him when he was much younger. And I think that first thing that hurt him amplified the effect of his church experience. Just like the lady who heard her parents arguing about money, and then, when she learned that her husband lost some money in a business deal, her anger was way out of range for the experience that she was having in the present, because it was all this stuff from the past that was coming forward. I suspect something like that has happened to this man. So until he goes back and does the inner work on the first things, he’s still going to be hampered in the present. Anytime something doesn’t seem fair to him, it’s going to go out of control.
I saw a young girl who was anxious, sometime ago, about college. I noticed she was biting her fingernails and she told me she was flying off the handle at home. I asked her how long she had been biting her nails and she said, “As long as I can remember.” So the anxiety that she was telling me about at college – that she was experiencing – didn’t start in college, did it? It started, probably, before she could remember – earlier. So the early anxiety is making the situation worse. Well, we started kind of talking about the past, and we learned that her parents divorced when she was a baby, and that her mother, who was very young, gave her up to her father, who was a bit older and who had strong parental support. So, during infancy, the bond that she formed with her mother was broken and she had to reform that with her dad and her grandfather and her grandmother. And a secure attachment, I think, did form there. But, as we continued to work, this girl could see a theme in her interactions with parents and other authority figures. She always felt like she was in trouble – or like she wasn’t good enough. She would even come into my office and fret if she didn’t have something bad to talk about. It was like she had to perform. She said, “I have this feeling like I’m always going to be disapproved of or abandoned.” Isn’t that interesting? We talked some more. She started to put the pieces together. We were talking about her anxiety at college. I said, “Where do you feel that in your body?” She said, “Right here.” She started thinking about that and realized that every time she started feeling some kind of loss, or like “I’m in trouble,” or “I’m not good enough,” she’d get that thing right here. We kept noodling that around and one day she said, “You know, I need to start thinking that I’m not in trouble.” After sometime, without even realizing it, she stopped biting her nails. She stopped flying off the handle at home so much. That happened without any effort, really, because the cause wasn’t there anymore. She stopped feeling so persecuted and took more responsibility for what was happening to her. That happened because we were able to get down to that early loss.
That’s somewhat of an example about the kind of things that I’m talking about. That young woman, too, was a very religious person – who went to church and all of that. She, too, thought that, if she just prayed and did all those things – do the exterior things – that that is just going to solve all of our problems. But it doesn’t. And Jesus told us where the problem is. It’s in the heart. So we have to go do that work.
You recall, I hope, that we began with a story about Jesus being confronted by the Pharisees Jesus told them that behavior is driven by the heart. In the olden days in the East, it was a custom to tear one’s clothes, as a sign of repentance. And in the book of Joel, Jesus, who was the God of the Old Testament, told them to “rend your hearts and not your garments.” So that’s where the key to change lies.
When people come and want to repent and change, to help them do that, we have to peel back the layers of anger, and the layers of anxiety, and the layers of fear, and get down to the hurt they suffered from the losses that have been inflicted on them. Then they can change. But only after that inner work is done.
What is it that makes it so hard to find your gift? Why is it so hard to stay connected with a group? Why do we find relationships so difficult? Why is it hard to find time to help other people? Why are we irritable, fearful, overly cautious, faithless? Why is it hard to stay focused on the things of God, instead of on our own desire? What was it we lacked? It goes back to that in almost every case. What fear? What discouragement? What losses hold us back?
No amount of Sabbath observance, church attendance, tithing, or any other exterior activity will help with those things. We have to do the inner work if we want to blossom as a fully engaged Christian that God wants us to be. And, of course, we need to remember why we’re talking about this, because some day there’s going to be an amazing new life for all those who do that work. And today is a perfect time to think about what manner of persons we ought to be. And it’s a perfect day to go a step further and think about what we can do to be that kind of person.
Now, I gave a few specifics today, but in the workshop that we’re going to do in Lexington this winter, we’re going to go into that much deeper.