An old hymn suggests that every believer has a unique story to share and song to sing, in which the name of Jesus will be praised “all the day long”. The following post is lengthy, but there was no other way to do this. What can I say? This is one of the climactic verses of my life-hymn thus far. If context is helpful, visit these posts first: 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Here we go.
I don’t recall the first time I was exposed to pornography. But I do recall far too well the guilt and shame introduced into my life from that day forward. I never needed someone to tell me that lust was wrong; my heart could feel that point like a dagger. But that recognition did nothing but cut more deeply every time I was reminded that I was not pure, as God desired. However, grace comes in many forms, and my heart has often thanked God for two simple mercies. I praise Him that I grew up in a pre-internet world. And I praise Him that a very real sense of fear resided in me, preventing me from falling into more destructive realms of darkness. What I had to handle was enough for me. As a teen and young adult, I recall self-loathing intense enough that I could not imagine why one would desire long life if these types of emotions needed to be carried the whole way. I recall certainty that the people around me would cast me aside with distaste if they knew the unseen rooms of my heart and mind. I wished to cast myself aside if there were a way! How could anyone else feel differently? And I can remember nearly two decades of “Christian living” in which my fixation upon my own failures distorted my view of the Father so completely that if Jesus had been a sketch artist, he would not have recognized his Abba if he had tapped my heart for a description.
On an aside: If this is your first visit to the blog, didn’t you pick a day to jump in?! I should’ve started you off with a post about the Toronto Blue Jays or something. No such luck today, my friend. We’re about to get close!
If one charted my prayers from age thirteen forward, I cannot imagine that those two decades would reveal a close second-place item behind my request that God would purify my heart. My sensitivity to this weakness was, in fact, an oversensitivity. Rather than fix my eyes on Jesus and his sufficiency, I fixed my eyes squarely on myself and my shortfall. When a person evaluates his level of spiritual health entirely upon a one-item moral scorecard, you can be pretty sure that you’re involved with something other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I don’t wish to belabour this matter – trust me, this is already the blog post I thought I would never write!
But one thing needs to be clear: I had one prayer in my heart, heads above every other. And I imagined that if God would ever dare to answer it, I would have nothing else to ask. Surely He saw this exactly as I did, no?
Entering the Arrow Program, I had high hopes for a breakthrough beyond what openness with select friends and accountability partnerships had provided in the past. These hopes were based on the fact that even prior to our first residential, we were put through thorough inventories about personalities, leadership styles, relationship patterns, spiritual gifts, and more. These inventories were completed by ourselves and a group of those who lived around us, including our spouses. There was a psychologist on staff with whom each of us would be spending time, and it seemed that no rock would be left unturned. I was nervous but optimistic. To my surprise, the first residential (September 2011) left this completely untouched, and I recall a sense of disappointment. I returned home to press into the next six months until we met again, with tempered prayers and no real sense of anticipation.
As a teen, my ears enjoyed the sounds of Def Leppard. Don’t ask me why? But how many rock bands have a one-armed drummer, come on?! Whatever the case, I now retroactively imagine God dialling the call-in show of the heavenly radio station: “Yes, I’d like to send out a song to Jason. Please play ‘Do You Wanna Get Rocked?’” He never told me to tune in. He just began the rocking.
Dreams and Words
One facet of lust that had always bothered me was my suspicion that there were deep layers out of my view. I imagined that if I could understand what ticked in the unseen levels of my heart, I might have better footing to step into victory. What was the allure? What was the draw? Any simpleton could suggest that it was just the power of human sexuality, the draw of male to female, hormones and desire and fantasy. And that simpleton would be right, but not right enough. What was beneath those? I often wondered.
Days before our second residential (March 2012… finally), I had a dream. It was a flashback to childhood, prompting a memory of loneliness, a pre-teen desire for meaningful connection with others. None of that was so clear at the time. Instead, it was merely a morning when I woke up, chuckled at the random nature of dreams, and sloughed it off to enter my day.
Days later, an Arrow presenter made a passing remark about his own life that instantly took me back to the dream, still fresh in my mind. I chuckled again, internally noting this as an unusual coincidence, particularly for a guy who never remembers his dreams.
The following day, a classmate made a comment that piqued my curiosity. It was one of those remarks where you suspect a substantial back story exists. Seeking him out privately, I asked if he would tell me “the rest of the story”. He obliged and began to describe how he had been deeply convicted six months earlier to confess openly to his wife an ongoing struggle with lust and pornography. I appreciated his vulnerability and knew that I was due to re-open such a visit with my wife as well. But here’s the part that surprised me. He had always credited his wife as possessing an unusually insightful spirit, an intuition of sorts that he counted as a spiritual gift. In the course of their dialogue, they determined that his sin was actually overflowing the banks of his life and having a negative impact upon her spiritual capacity. It would be difficult to express the weight and purity of conviction that I felt in that moment. Allow me to elaborate on that.
Round and Round
There is a cycle familiar to many. It looks something like this:
1) We feel close to God.
2) We feel less close to God.
3) We go seeking fulfillment elsewhere.
4) We do something we regret.
5) We condemn ourselves and stew over our own stupidity.
6) In anger and shame, we vow to do better next time.
7) Through some combination of confession, repentance, and penance, we rediscover our footing back at step one.
It would be one thing if all of us ran around the circle just once or twice in a lifetimes, but I’ve logged enough miles and heard enough stories to know otherwise. Most of us have run a nauseating number of laps. So you’ve likely discovered that the only point on the loop where a hopeless person feels any sort of leverage to change their situation is that place of anger and shame (#6). Fuelled by those fiery feelings, this is the spot where we plant our feet and thrust our strength forward in the quest to “do better”. It seems noble. Probably even Christian. The problem is that the whole thing is built on darkness. Shame and anger have never birthed righteousness. Life does not spring forth from such wells. Sometimes we use the word “conviction” in this place, but all too often, we’re speaking of a counterfeit form, tainted by the devil with condemnation. I have swallowed that brew more times than I can count, but on that day, I experienced a completely different thing.
In listening to my friend’s story, my soul received a most pure and proper sense of conviction from the Holy Spirit. He was gracious yet uncompromising. He had no desire to destroy me, but full intent to restore me. And in that moment, I was blown away by a newfound motivation for healing: I wanted my life to wield spiritual power, to cause ripples for the Kingdom of Christ, and I had no doubt that a purified heart internally would contribute to greater fruit externally. In short, I wanted God to change me for His sake rather than mine. And that was a new feeling that presented me with a wildly new footing for confession and repentance. New hope was sparked in me.
The following day involved three hours of private and silent retreat. Some simple instructions for Scripture meditation and prayer journaling were provided, and each of us set out for solitude. Our assigned text was Psalm 23, a passage I’d known since childhood. What epiphany could possibly await me in these familiar verses? I quieted myself and prayed for some form of revelation. And the God who is always near asserted Himself. By the end of verse 1, I knew something unusual was brewing. Rolling that verse’s phrases over and over in my mind, I created a prayer refrain still dear to me today:
“Yahweh my Shepherd is. In want I shall not be.”
Thought mixed with prayer mixed with stillness, and a million-watt lightbulb went off, as if God were shedding light on a twenty-year prayer with this message:
“There are two pastures in which you may live, Jason. In the first, you are a sheep and I am your faithful Shepherd. When you trust Me and draw near, My caring provision satisfies you deeply. This is life at its finest, and you have known moments like this. But when you stop trusting Me and create distance between us, then your heart grows restless for the satisfaction you no longer feel. This drives you to explore the wilderness. And in the wilderness, you discover plants that poison and terrain that threatens and enemies that devour. Please trust me. And please stay close. This is all you need.”
It is impossible to recount the force with which my head spun as this message downloaded into my heart. It was scriptural and timeless — it could have been for anyone — but it was precise and personal, for me right now beyond any doubt. It made my heart leap, as I received it like a customized gift from the One who loved me most. What’s more, this experience of revelation was woven intricately into the conversation and the comment and the dream of recent days, flooring me with the realization that God had been lovingly setting up this moment long before I had any sense of His approach. I was overwhelmed by this. The remainder of my solitude was spent revelling in the nearness and kindness of God, neither of which I had ever felt so strongly. It was shocking to me, and I felt as though every prayer I had ever prayed had just been answered.
And it wasn’t even lunch time. 🙂
After eating (I had no words to share at my table that day; I just ate and smiled), we were placed into our small groups of four, for prayer. We were given scripts to follow and sharing to carry out. One group member was a Manitoba pastor who had become dear to me. He shared words of heaviness. I again had the sense that there was “more to the story”, so I asked him a question and his sharing became more profound. A facilitator named Gretchen sidled up beside me, her mouth right near my ear. She gently asked, “Jason, do you know how to guide him from here?”
Completely confused by her question, I replied, “No, I don’t.”
She insisted, “Oh, I’m pretty sure you do.”
Annoyance now mixed with my confusion, “No, I’m pretty sure I don’t.”
Gretchen then entered the conversation, prompting my classmate into prayers of confession and repentance. The exercise ended, and we all dismissed with instructions that a bus would soon take us to the base of a mountain, where we would end the day with an afternoon hike.
I headed toward the bus with my head now spinning in a completely different direction. My morning had just involved the mountaintop experience of my faith journey, and now the glory of that encounter felt undercut by this strange exchange. And it wasn’t about to get better.
Sliding into the empty seat beside me, Gretchen appeared to be on a mission. (If you read this, Gretchen, please know through and through that I love and appreciate you. But on that particular day, you were a mighty unsettling presence for a bit. 🙂 ) She looked at me intensely and posed a question, “Do you have the spiritual gift of discernment?”
I laughed and explained that discussions of spiritual gifts were relatively unfamiliar to me despite the fact that I’d been forced to complete a couple inventories as part of this course. I shrugged and confessed that I hadn’t paid those results much attention. Beyond things like preaching and teaching, I wasn’t sure what to do with many of the other spiritual gifts included on my results. Then I paused and admitted, “It’s strange that you mention discernment though. That one actually came up on both of my inventories as something worth noting, but I just dismissed it because of its unfamiliarity.” Then I posed a question, “Why do you ask me this?”
She revealed, “Discernment is one of my spiritual gifts, and I’ve had that affirmed by people around me for many years. As your classmate was sharing, I could sense that there was another level that needed to be tapped, but I didn’t know how to get at it. Then you asked one question, and we got there in a hurry. I don’t think you could’ve done that without some gift for discernment.”
I don’t actually remember how the conversation moved from there. I do remember that it was making me uncomfortable, and I felt some measure of relief when the doors opened to release us on to a forested path inclined upward.
The crowd quickly spread over the path: Aggressive hikers moved fast and stragglers hung back. I settled into a comfortable gap in the middle with space before and behind me; I needed some time alone. My dominant train of thought was a confused debate with myself: “What am I to make of this, that this morning was a high point of my spiritual life, with God revealing Himself as more close and more caring than I had ever known Him to be. Yet here I was, mere hours after, and my wish to soak in that encounter is being sabotaged by a nutty woman rambling about the gifts of the Spirit!”
As I walked, I thought. And I stewed. And then I prayed. As I neared a grassy-knoll near the peak, this was my prayer:
“Lord, is there something here for me? I mean, I know there was something for me in Psalm 23. That was a word I’ve sought for twenty years! If one matter has unsettled my heart and stolen my joy, you addressed it this morning, and everything in me wishes just to set up camp there and linger with what was so obviously Your revelation to me. But what am I to do with this? Surely, this is a distraction, right? A tangent unworthy of further focus? That’s how I want to treat it, but I need to feel peace to do so. So I’m asking you, ‘Is this for me, or am I free to discard it?’”
That was the prayer hanging from my heart as I approached that grassy knoll. As I looked toward that point, I was intrigued by a sparkle on the ground. I assumed it to be a marker of some sort or perhaps a fallen earring or coin. It was right up on top of the knoll, impossible to miss, yet person after person walked right over it without even stopping to check it out. I chuckled at the oddity of that and committed that I would be stopping in a dozen steps or so to investigate. As I knelt down, I saw a dirty brown circle pressed into the damp soil. It looked like a penny, but it was anything but sparkly now that I was up close. I pressed my thumb beneath to pry it out. As I raised my hand and rubbed the coin between thumb and forefinger, this sentence fired through my mind: “You’re about to get messed up.” My breathing changed, and I paused. I already knew what would happen next. I moved my thumb aside to reveal the penny and gulped to see its year: 1977.
That’s my year. My birth year.
If you know me, you know this: I’ve super-cynical. My skepticism is finely tuned, and my head leads me fifty times before my heart gets a say. I don’t try to be that way; I just am. I love sound logic. I trust it, and I seek it. And I’m leery of voices that sound too loose in their language or too flaky in their processing. I measure my thoughts and select my words with caution, and my distaste for drama and aversion to hype will prompt me to understate something long before I dare to overstate it.
All that said, I possessed neither ability nor freedom to interpret the coin in my hand as anything other than a tangible answer to the prayer I had just dangled before God ten seconds earlier. A part of me wanted to, but I couldn’t do it. There was no way. And the word “coincidence” felt idiotic in that moment. So I just said nothing and held my coin.
I didn’t tell this story to anyone for quite some time. If I’m honest, it embarrassed me. Why? Because God doesn’t do stupid things like that! He doesn’t plant pennies on mountains for people to magically find as answers to prayer. That’s fine for YOU to have a story like that, but even five minutes earlier, if you’d have told me of an experience like that, I’d have listened and nodded and said, “Wow, that’s amazing.” And then I’d have departed and rolled my eyes and mentally noted you as a nut-job. Everybody knows God doesn’t do stuff like that.
Except when He does.
If you’re still reading, you’re really amazing!
Next post: How did I process all that?
Hint: It didn’t happen quickly.