Tag Archives: Freedom

James Petticrew ~ Sanctifying Ambition: Leadership and the Pitfalls of Platform

Being a “fifty-something” (54-year-old, to be accurate) pastor means that I am at an unsettling place in my ministry. I am at that stage where the end is in sight; I probably have just over a decade of good ministry time ahead of me. I have discovered that knowing most of my ministry time is behind me makes me think of my legacy. In fact, it makes me wonder if I will leave any legacy at all. I speculate about when I retire: will anyone notice I am gone, or even care? Will my years in ministry have any lasting impact?

If I am open and honest, I have to admit that this way of thinking has led me to other ways of thinking that frankly I am embarrassed to admit to. I found myself wondering recently “how to raise my profile.” I have spent idle moments wondering what I could do to get more people to notice me, to appreciate what I do. I think marketers call it “building your platform.” I have daydreamed of being invited to speak at conferences that would lead to invitations to speak at more significant events. (I did warn you these admissions were embarrassing!) I have been seduced into thinking that the bigger the events I speak at, the more people who know who I am, the more effective I will be as a pastor and the greater legacy I will leave behind.

I don’t think I am the only church leader who has these thoughts. Both culture and our Christian subculture tempt us and cajole us along this way of thinking as church leaders. We subconsciously or sometimes very consciously compare those following us on social media with the followings that other church leaders have gathered. We find ourselves wondering, “how many times has my sermon quote been retweeted and by whom?” We check our blog stats to see if our latest post has attained the holy grail of social media and gone “viral.” Probably like every pastor, I think somewhere inside of me is a book, but I have been told that the first thing any prospective publisher will look at is not whether or not the content I could provide is good, but rather how big a platform I have. They would be interested in how many people are in my congregation, how many Twitter followers I have, how many hits my blog gets per month. Publishers want potential authors to have made a “name for themselves” before they take a risk on them.

All of that weighed on my mind recently when I read these two verses which are physically very close in the pages of Genesis yet are spiritually worlds apart in the attitudes they represent.

“Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.'” – Genesis 11:4 (NIV)

“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great,  and you will be a blessing.” – Genesis 12:2 (NIV)

More than just building a tower, the people of Babel wanted to build a reputation for themselves. They wanted others to recognize their intelligence and skill and to admire them. They wanted to create their own identity as the premier architects and builders of the Ancient Near East. They wanted to be the first people that the organizers of a “Purpose Driven Tower Builders” conference would think of when they wanted keynote speakers. You know how the story ends: in their pursuit of making a name for themselves they became a lesson in arrogance and failure. They certainly did make a name for themselves, but not the one they intended. I saw a reflection of myself in their desire to build a reputation for themselves. What about you?

Abraham, on the other hand, didn’t seem that interested in making a name for himself. He was happy to follow God, to obey God’s calling (with a few hiccups) and to entrust his reputation to God. God took care of Abraham’s reputation and made his name “great.” Abraham was happy to move from one of the “happening places” of the Ancient Near East to the relative obscurity of life in the backwater of Canaan. An unsettling thought crossed my mind: most of us pastors want to move in the opposite direction, from obscurity to a more important place, the church in the bigger town, the move to the congregation with the higher profile in our denomination.

In my more honest and introspective moments I have been contemplating why, when it comes to my reputation as a church leader, I have been more Genesis 11 than 12, more a humanistic Babel Builder than a God-trusting Abrahamic Sojourner.

I think I may have found the answer in some words from Lance Witt: “I’m not sure when, but somewhere along the way, the measuring stick for what it means to be an effective pastor got switched. My concern is that the measuring stick of size alone can fuel a kind of ambition that is destructive.”

Witt issued a warning for all of us who serve the church: “When you’ve been in ministry leadership awhile, you learn how to cloak ambition in kingdom language. You can wrap ambition in God talk and sanctify it.” We so easily fool even ourselves that what we are doing is to glorify God’s name, when in reality the goal is to get our name noticed.

That switch took place in my head and that ambition took root in my heart. I started to measure success primarily by size, the size of my social media following, the size of the congregation I preach to, the size of the events to which I am invited to be a speaker. I was a fully-fledged Babel Builder, and my goal was to make a name for myself. I allowed myself to believe that effectiveness, true greatness in ministry, was given through the approval of people rather than through the grace and approval of God. I subtly and then overtly came to value people’s approval of my ministry more than God’s approval of me as a disciple. I wanted to have a name that people recognized rather than to entrust my reputation to God.

I have this quote on ministry, though I don’t know who said it: “We should take care of the depth, God will take care of the breadth.”  Whoever said it, I am determined to try to live it out consistently. I am going to focus my energy and ambition in following Abraham’s example rather than building a following. I want to make journeying with my God in faith and obedience my priority and leave my reputation in his hands, not mine. Jesus once said, “I am not seeking glory for myself.” (John 8:50) I am now trying to filter everything I do in ministry through those words to honestly analyze my motivation.

So, how about you? Where are you when it comes to reputation, Genesis 11 or Genesis 12? Who are you trying to build a name with? Who do you really trust with your reputation? What’s your priority right now in your ministry, the depth of your relationship with God or the breadth of your influence with people? For me it’s been an awkward journey, but I have come to the place where I am content with obscurity if my name is great in God’s eyes because of my walk with him.

Michelle Bauer ~ Are You Really Free?

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you.” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” – John 8:1-11

Do you remember a time of feeling absolutely free? Maybe as a child on a swing or on the first day of summer? How did it feel?

This poor woman in the scripture passage is not free. She is being held captive by the religious leaders, and she is trapped in sin. Using your imagination, fill in the details of this woman’s story. What life choices and circumstances led to her decision to be a part of an adulterous relationship? How did she get caught? What was her night in jail like? How do you feel about this woman?

As our text suggests, “But Jesus” is a powerful phrase. How have these words affected your life – times when you were trapped or suffocating, but Jesus…? What impossible thing has God done in your life? Do you have a “but Jesus…” story?

As it turns out, Jesus was the only truly free person present that day. The crowd was made to see that they were sinners too. How might this event have changed the men who had been so quick to punish?

Jesus offers the woman forgiveness and encourages her to leave her life of sin. What sinful parts of your life would you like to leave behind? How might your life be different?

Receiving God’s forgiveness makes us free. Have you found it easy or hard to receive forgiveness?

What stands in your way of believing you are forgiven?

What do you think the rest of this woman’s life was like? How would freedom from sinful habits and patterns change your own life? How would you use your freedom to help others experience healing and wholeness?

How would a greater experience of freedom allow you to enter into Sabbath rest more freely?

Leave this quiet time trusting that you have been set free.


Note from the Editor: the accompanying featured image is “Liberty Garden,” painted in 1972 by Walter Darby Bannard, Fair Use.

Robert Carter ~ Baptized into Christ Jesus


Note from the Editor: Please enjoy our weekend sermon from Rev. Robert Carter on Romans 6:1-14. He is the Senior Pastor of South Point First Church of the Nazarene.

Click the Play button below to listen now.


Michelle Bauer ~ Finding Spiritual Freedom

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…” – Isaiah 61:1

“Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.'” – Luke 4:14-21

Once you have found a comfortable place, spend a few moments in silence.  Take a few deep breaths and feel your body begin to relax. When you feel your mind becoming quiet, offer a simple prayer to God, thanking him for his presence and inviting him to speak to you.

Jesus celebrated the Sabbath by going to the synagogue. Do you celebrate the Sabbath? Do you find it restful? Is there something you need to add or remove to make this day more restful?

The poor, the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed – one writer summarized this list as describing “those who have been traumatized by the stuff of life.” How have you been traumatized by the stuff of life? What affect does this have on you today?

We normally think of poor people as those who have no money, but there are other ways in which we can be poor. Some of us are emotionally poor. Some of us are poor spiritually. Others are poor in healthy relationships. In what ways are you poor? What would it look like to be rich in that area?

Has it ever felt like you have been held prisoner by something? How did you get free? In what area of life do you struggle to be free? Ask God to “proclaim freedom” to that part of your life. People who are oppressed struggle to share the freedom of those around them. In what ways are you helping others who are oppressed?

Jesus declared that this prophetic passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah was being fulfilled. Do you sense these things being fulfilled in your life? Where are you experiencing freedom?

Where are you looking for freedom?

Christianity Vectors by Vecteezy

American Freedom or Christian Freedom?

Always a lover of history, currently I’m partway through Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton – the book, incidentally, which son of Puerto Rican immigrants Lin-Manuel Miranda turned into the hit Broadway musical. With a decent dose of Scot in my blood, I can get into any story of a struggle for freedom easily. Why else would I own a t-shirt emblazoned with “Boadicea: Warrior Queen of the Celts“?

While I do not lack in feistiness, the principle, reality, ideal or goal of freedom has preoccupied my thinking lately, because my feistiness can serve Christ in different ways. And feistiness doesn’t always serve its own desire for personal freedom.

Consider the Apostle Paul: a feisty disciple of Christ if ever there was one – after all, “I confronted Peter to his face,” and Dr. Luke tells us in Acts of Paul and Barnabas’ sharp dispute and parting. But the feisty Saul-turned-Paul was not allowed to fight for himself – “to live is Christ, to die, gain.” He went from breathing murderous threats and arresting Christians to a great deal of suffering (imprisonment, harsh travel, shipwreck, beatings) and dying for his faith. Saul was feisty; Paul was feisty. Saul was feisty for a cause. Paul was feisty for Christ.

Anyone who follows international news (and North Americans have to discipline themselves to do so, because our news sources focus on North American news or “news” almost exclusively) is quickly acquainted with the varying degrees of political and religious freedom around the world. Recently Russia has been debating religious freedom, possibly putting the most restrictions on it since the fall of the Soviet Union (outlawing evangelism online or even invitations to a private residence for the purpose of religious meeting). Recently ISIS burned 19 Yazidi women alive in a cage for refusing to have sex with ISIS fighters. Reading these headlines should rekindle gratitude for freedom in the hearts of those who, at least for the time being, have it. After all, freedom is not and has never been a guarantee. 

Yet as proud as I am that a great-great-relative fought and was injured in the Civil War, specifically against slavery – as proud as I am that great-great-relatives fought in the Revolutionary War – as grateful as I am for young men who retched into their helmets as they prepared to land on the beaches of Normandy – as grateful as I am for a nation that is maddeningly imperfect but still remains a hope, an ideal, a far-off luxury in the minds of millions – Christians are called to exercise their freedom for others. If there is any great divide, it may be the difference between Americans who, in general, exercised their freedom for others, and Americans who, in general, exercised their freedom for themselves.

How ought Christians to steward our freedom, wherever we live in the world, whether we live in relative abundance of freedom or whether we live in restrictive, closed countries with censored internet?

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience,  for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience.I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. – I Cor. 10:23-33

Paul writes here about personal freedom to do something in good conscience that someone else may have qualms about. The principle is similar to not drinking in front of a recovering alcoholic: you may have no problem with addiction, but out of concern and love and even basic politeness, you give up your “freedom” to drink when you are with that person, because the person is worth more than your right to exercise that freedom.

In a society compulsively obsessed with individual rights, this is revolutionary. Of course, in North America, I have the right to post something on Facebook. But maybe I shouldn’t as someone called to be feisty for Christ more than feisty for my nationality. In another nation, of course, I have the right to report my neighbor for something. But maybe I shouldn’t as someone called to be feisty for Christ more than feisty for my government. For Christians, all causes must be submitted to Christ, viewed through Christ, sanctified to be Christlike. I cannot love my cause more than my Christ. I cannot define myself more by my cause than my Christ. I cannot give more for my cause than I give my Christ.

Patriotism isn’t a form of faith; it’s a form of being a good citizen. Patriotism, then, is always subservient to Christ (as Europeans who illegally hid Jews in their homes in the 1940’s practiced at great sacrifice). Our citizenship does not define us, though: we are pilgrims, as John Bunyan pictured, pilgrims, travelers, strangers, foreigners – refugees… The author of Hebrews paints this reality beautifully in chapter 11:

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth,for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”

All the citizens of earth hunger for “a better country;” we know that the best country on earth still suffers natural disaster or disease, war or poverty. But for Americans, for Iraqis, for Russians, for Nigerians, for Tibetans, for all from pole to pole who “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one,” God is not ashamed of them. There is no shame in refusing to exercise individual liberty, for the sake of others; it is the way of Jesus.

Michelle Bauer ~ Live Free!

In May, my husband and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. Marriage and freedom aren’t often talked about together. In fact, our culture often tells us that marriage is the opposite of freedom. But my experience has been that being in a committed, intimate relationship with someone is the definition of freedom. I am free because I am secure in our relationship. A security not based on rules or unrealistic expectations and not based on the fact that I have given myself the option to leave anytime it starts to not be fun. I am free because I am loved fully and unconditionally and that creates a safe space for me to be who I really am.

God our Father creates that same kind of safe space for us. The question is – are we willing to live there?

Through Christ, we have been set free. Today I want us to think about what it means not just to be free but also to live in freedom.  It is possible to be free but to still live as if you aren’t. Paul wrote the book of Galatians to a church struggling with this distinction. They are dealing with the issues that come up when you attempt to integrate people from different cultures into one community. And of course everyone has an opinion about how to do that. They are hearing from Jews and Gentiles and even a group of agitators who are working behind the scenes to make this process even more difficult.

All of these people have been set free from the law’s restrictions and requirements but they are still trying to figure out what it looks like to live in freedom. The Jews especially are having a hard time believing they are really free. They are suspicious that if they fully relax into freedom the boom will eventually fall.

The issue at hand in Galatians chapter 5 is circumcision, and it is threatening to divide this new group of believers. Notice in our text how our ability or inability to live in freedom affects our community.

Consider Paul’s words in Galatians 5:1-15:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

 Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. But my friends,why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Maybe a first step in learning to live free is to understand what freedom isn’t. We often think of freedom in two extremes.

  Legalism                                                                                                                              License

 Following the Rules                                                                                                    Doing What I Want


Today, though, we are going to talk about the other end of the spectrum because that’s where the Galatians are struggling.
On the license side of the spectrum we think of freedom as getting to direct our own lives – like no one is the boss of you. When we tend towards this end of the spectrum we think that we are “free” to do whatever sounds good to us.  But when we stay too long at this end of the spectrum our lives can become empty or damaged. Addiction starts at this end of the spectrum. We think, “I am free to drink or try drugs or look at pornography or eat what I want or buy as many pairs of shoes as I want.” Freedom taken to this point often leads to the opposite of freedom – bondage.

The Jewish Galatians who find themselves at this end of spectrum would swear up and down to you that they are free but they really aren’t. They are hanging on to their old baggage and trying to bring it into the “new” thing that God is doing.

At the legalism end we live by rules – rules that we have made up and rules we have let others impose on us. When we are living down here, we think we are making free choices but really our decisions are a result of the fear and shame we feel.

So, if we have bondage on either end of the spectrum, where do we find freedom?

Legalism                                                                                                                         License

Following the Rules                           FREEDOM                                  Doing What I Want


True freedom is found in the middle.  If we can find the tension point between living under rules and doing whatever pleases us at the moment, then we have found true freedom.

Let’s take a modern day issue and see if this spectrum works. Let’s think about a person struggling with lustful thoughts for example. One day they get serious about rooting out the things that trigger these thoughts and they are able to be honest and say that a particular television show that they watch consistently starts the lust cycle in them. They now have some options. They can continue to claim their “freedom” to watch whatever TV show they want. God loves them. He’s forgiven them. And they march happily off towards the license end of the spectrum.

The other option is to decide to not watch that TV show. But that doesn’t seem good enough. So they go into the living room and rip the TV out of the wall insuring no one in their home will ever watch TV again. Now they are feeling pretty holy and it strikes them that other people should be as worried about the dangers of TV watching as they are.

So they start talking about their new rules in their small group and begin to lift them up as a standard of holiness. By now they have firmly planted themselves in legalism.

Do you see how dangerous both of these options are not just to that person but to their entire community? The person who’s watching whatever they want on TV and bragging about their freedom is just tempting others who are at risk of being badly damaged to join them. And the person trapped in legalism is just dragging more and more people into the same trap by offering quick-fix holiness.

In the middle, freedom allows us to prayerfully discern what step the Spirit is instructing us to take and do that. We may share our experience with others, but not to require that they do what we are doing but rather to inspire them to seek freedom.  Life in the tension of freedom is delicate.

Back in Galatia, the Jews are having a hard time letting go of the Law. They found the cross and freedom but in their fear and uncertainty they have run back to the bondage of rules. It is easy to do when the way ahead looks uncertain.

In our day, circumcision is performed routinely in the United States for many reasons. But in that biblical era it was not done unless you were an Israelite.  They had been commanded for thousands of years to circumcise their baby boys. It was not just a tradition but a physical sign of the covenant God had made with them. Their obedience to that Law was what literally marked them as God’s chosen people.

After Christ at the time of the Galatian letter, the Israelites, though, have now been set free from this requirement. The Jewish leaders want to get excited about this but they are hesitant – they are used to living life waiting for the boom to fall. But Paul isn’t going to give up on them!

Living Free

If you look again at Galatians 5:1, Paul was teaching that freedom many times comes in two stages: We are set free and then we have to learn to live free.

When we chose to enter into relationship with Jesus, he set us free – immediately and completely.

But Paul quickly reminds us that being set free doesn’t automatically lead to living like free people. He warns us to stand firm – let Jesus lead you to the spot in the middle of the spectrum and stand there. Don’t give your freedom away by walking in either direction.

Learning to live like a free person is a process especially if we have lived at the rules end of the spectrum for too long. Craig Haney is a professor of psychology at the University of California-Santa Cruz who has studied the psychological effects of prison life. He found that when someone goes to prison they begin a transformation process that takes them from being in rebellion to being totally reliant on rules. They go from license to legalism on our spectrum. The structure of prison starts out feeling very rigid and inflexible for a new prisoner, but over time it becomes their normal.  At this point they have lost the ability to live free.*

This transformation makes for a good prisoner but becomes a problem when the prisoner is released and expected to return to a normal life.

Listen to the words of a young man who has spent a lot of his life in and out of correctional facilities:

I have been in juvenile hall three times, did two years in the California Youth Authority, and have been to four different prisons since the age of 14, so I have encountered thousands of inmates. A common theme [I’ve seen] is a lack of control over their lives. Some people can’t control that little demon on their shoulder, so when no one is watching you constantly, like in prison, and you have all of the freedom of being on the “outside,” you miss the structure. I am accountable for every single thing I do in here and just the slightest slip-up can cost me my chance at freedom. I have a heightened sense of awareness now and I have no choice but to think about every action I make.**

Does that sound like freedom to you?  The sad thing is, this young man is at great risk of failing when he leaves prison and doesn’t have someone telling him exactly what to do.

Professor Haney is working with governments to develop reintegration plans for prisoners who are being released. In order to transition successfully, they need to learn how to live free.

The Galatian church leaders needed a reintegration plan. They were taught to treat the Law as their prison guard. Instead of finding the freedom God intended the Law to bring, they manipulated and expanded it to the point where they didn’t have to make decisions. They monitored themselves and others for the “slightest slip-up” and administered swift punishment to those who did not comply. They didn’t give themselves or others room to follow God and respond to him as their shepherd. Good shepherds don’t hand out rule books or keep their sheep on leashes. They call to their sheep and the sheep listen and follow. But you have to be free to follow.

What’s the Big Deal about Circumcision?

We don’t talk a lot about circumcision in church. It’s not the most comfortable topic to discuss. But I’ve decided not to let that stop me this morning!

Thousands of babies are circumcised every day; but unlike the time of the Galatian epistle, it is done in the sterile environment of a hospital. Sometime before you leave the hospital with a new baby the nurse comes and collects him and returns him a few hours later – swaddled and sleeping. The new parents know what happened but they try not to think a lot about it. That at least was our experience for two of our three boys. One of our sons, though, was not circumcised in the hospital.

We had to take one of our sons to a Jewish pediatrician who was also trained as a mohel. On the day of our appointment, we arrived at the doctor’s office and it all seemed pretty normal. The nurse led us back to an examining room. The baby was asleep in his carrier. Then the doctor came in and talked us through the procedure. That’s when we got the idea that this was going to be bad. The doctor then took our eight-day old baby, strapped him to a board and asked my husband to hold the board down. At this point, Chris was standing at alert next to the examining table. The doctor very gently invited him to have a seat. In retrospect, yet another sign that this was going to be bad.  I will spare you all of the terrible, terrible details – just imagine needles where you would never want them, clamps, really sharp circular knives, lots of blood and screaming (the baby and his parents). When it was over, the doctor gave us some instructions to care for the wound, wished us a cheery “Mazel Tov!” and left the room. We dressed the baby in a daze and stumbled out of the office like we had witnessed a war.

The question up for debate in the Galatian church was whether or not every Gentile adult male who came to Christ would have to undergo this procedure. Talk about a stumbling block! Aren’t you glad you don’t have to include that requirement when you talk to your friends about Jesus? Would the church have grown to include the whole world with the weight of circumcision hanging around its neck?

Signs of Bondage

These leaders had not found their way into the sweet spot of freedom yet.  So Paul began to point out to them signs that they are still living in bondage.

The first sign that they are not living free is the sense of obligation that they are experiencing.

Look at verse three: Paul speaks directly to the Gentiles in the group and warns them, “if you allow yourselves to be dragged out of freedom and into bondage then you will have to follow the whole Law.  That’s when it becomes obligation. Then you will no longer be living a Spirit-led life – responding to his movement and direction. You will be attached to a dead rule book – checking boxes that choke out any love relationship that you have with God. You will begin going through the motions because you have to, not because you get to or you want to.”

Do that for too long and you will end up feeling alienated from Christ. When we are attempting to strive for our worthiness we will feel ourselves slip further and further from God because we will never measure up. When we are trying to earn our own salvation by keeping rules it is like we have turned our back on the cross and are walking towards bondage.

And verse 15 shows us that a community held in bondage is a dysfunctional one.

This group of believers is attacking one another and in danger of destroying each other and their community. Why? Because I am often not content to beat myself up in isolation. The law I hold myself to I also hold you to. Nothing irritates a person in bondage more than someone who is truly free. It is driving the Jews nuts that the Gentiles are having an easier time finding freedom.

Instead Paul says, look at what freedom has to offer!

Signs of Freedom

In verses 5-6 we see words that make rule keepers nervous – faith, wait and hope. True formation happens from the inside out. If we are simply keeping rules that is not true formation. Think back to what the young prisoner said earlier. If he has to rely on prison’s structure to keep him on track has he really been transformed?  If we have been transformed on the inside, we can set the rule book on the shelf and let the Spirit lead.

True, internal formation takes time – that’s where the waiting comes in. It takes faith to wait while the Spirit works. It takes hope to anticipate what we will be like when we are done because sometimes, like any renovation project, it looks worse before it gets better.  But this is where freedom is found!

Love is another word that has tripped up religious rule keepers in every generation. We worry that if we love someone just as they are today the person will never change. So we withhold our acceptance until you are following the rules like we are. Until we have dragged you right into legalism. The Jewish leaders were happy to have the Gentiles join them but only after they had conformed to their idea of what it meant to love God.

But when we are free – we are free to love. We are free to be patient with others while their internal formation is happening.

Finally, freedom knows the difference between obedience and rule keeping. Remember, we do not want to drift from freedom towards license and start doing whatever we want to do. That’s just walking away from Jesus in another direction.

But now I am not following rules in order to be a good rule keeper. I am following Jesus and learning to be responsive to the directions he gives. That is the difference between obedience and rule keeping.

If my goal is to keep the rules, my attention will be on the rule book. If my goal is to follow Jesus, my attention will be on Jesus. That is where the freedom is!

I want to close by telling you an old Indian story about a farmer who brought a dozen pigeons to sell at a bazaar.  He didn’t have a cage. So, he tied a string around one foot of each bird. The other end of the string he tied to a stick stuck in the ground. The pigeons spent their day tethered to this post walking around and around. Most of the day had gone by when a man came along and asked how much the pigeons cost and then said to the farmer, “I want to buy them all.” The farmer was elated. After the money was exchanged the man said “now I want you to set them all free.” The farmer looked surprised and the man said again, “please…cut the strings and set them all free.” So, the farmer cut the strings.

The farmer and the man obviously expected the birds to immediately fly away now that they were free but instead they continued marching around and around in a circle. Finally the men tried to shoo the birds away. But even then the birds flew just a few feet away and resumed their marching around a post that wasn’t even there. Free, unbound, released, yet going around in circles as if still tied.

Being set free and living free are two separate things. But the good news is, you are not a pigeon! We can learn to live in freedom. We must learn to live in freedom. Only in freedom do we find the abundant life where God’s will is done and his kingdom is built.

The first step is asking the Spirit to reveal where you are not free. What place in you is still living in bondage? Ask God to show you. This spectrum makes it look all cut and dried, but it is very subtle. The difference between legalism, license and freedom is sometimes as small as our intention. We must have the Spirit showing us where we are not free. And then follow God to freedom as he leads you.



*The source for this material was a December 2001 paper written by Craig Haney, PhD titled “The Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for Post-Prison Adjustment”. It was written as part of the “From Prison to Home: The Effect of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities project.”

**This is a quote from a man named David Monroe who is an inmate at San Quentin and was taken from an article on ca.askmen.com.

Talbot Davis ~ Could You Give Up Porn for Lent? A Pastoral Perspective on Life Change

It happened again a few months ago.

A young man made an appointment with me at the church, came into my office at the expected time, sat down in his chair, glanced around the room, nervous as a cat, and began to speak.

What emerged over the next 15 minutes was a tale of escalating addiction that led to discovery on the part of his wife and with it the threat of expulsion from his home.

What kind of addiction?

The most common kind clergy in the 21st Century face in their role as pastors:  pornography.

You’ll note that I opened by stating that “it happened again last week.”  And the again is not accidental…the odds are that when a man in our church makes an appointment to speak with me, the presenting issue is compulsive use of pornography that has in fact made his life unmanageable.  It impacts men of all ethnicities, nationalities, and even ages – ranging from adolescents to seasoned citizens.

It sometimes leads to trouble with the law.  It often leads to difficulty with the family.  It always results in disconnection from the self.

The rise of the internet has created a perfect storm for growing numbers of men to become addicted to looking at and masturbating to pornographic images.  It is available.  It is anonymous.  I suspect no other generation of men – or their pastors – had such a collision of forces that are the same time both irresistible and destructive.

So what is a pastor to do when faced with this kind of epidemic?

Well, through trial and error at Good Shepherd Church, we have devised a protocol for those times when porn comes into a pastor’s office.  The protocol stems not only from the frequency with which the addiction comes calling but also my familiarity with and appreciation for Twelve Step Programs.  What you will read below is a system we talk about on-staff, these are notes we distribute internally, and it is a process that we have seen God use to bring men to new places of wholeness and healing.

Specifically, our pastoral counseling protocol revolves around three elements:  spirituality, therapy, and community.


When a man comes to my office seeking help with his addiction to pornography, that first meeting always includes healing prayer.

While the addiction may have begun as moral failure, it most cases it has escalated to the point of uncontrollable behavior.  He no longer looks at porn because he wants to but because he is overcome with a compulsion that makes him feel he has to.

I always affirm the man’s courage in coming to me, assure him that I am not going to place another layer of guilt on him (he usually feels enough of that already), and let him know that his current impasse is, at the core, a spiritual issue.  He has substituted a false god for the true one – after all, it’s not accidental that so many excavated idols are sexualized figurines.  Internet porn is simply a modern manifestation of an ancient idolatry.

With that awareness, I will often anoint my friend with oil, lay hands on his shoulders, and pray Jesus’ healing power over his addiction.  At some point in that spoken prayer, I will have the man pray out loud for himself.  I believe it is vital for the man to own his addiction before God and to claim the healing that is available in Christ.  Whether it’s porn or alcohol or gambling or gluttony, I contend that God won’t do for you what he needs to do with you.


Sadly, all too many pastors, church, and addicts would regard the meeting described above as the end of the matter.  As in, “it’s been prayed for, I’ve been delivered, so that’s it.”

My friends in the world of Recovery call that a “spiritual bypass.”  Meaning: many addicts long for a one-stop, one-step prayer miracle – a ZAP! – that heals them without going through the difficult work of recovery.

And while deliverance from porn addiction may on occasion happen in that fashion, it is much more common for healing to occur in and through the type of community one finds in a Twelve Step Program.  So in the counseling session I’ve been describing, I will connect the struggling man with either a Sex Addicts Anonymous or a Sexaholics Anonymous group meeting in our area.

To make that connection more personal, I typically contact one of several men I know in our church who are in SAA or SA and ask them to ensure that the new person makes it to his first meeting.  Those in recovery have proven remarkably eager to help others begin working the steps.

Once in a recovery group, an addict discovers that a) he is not alone; b) he needs to be restored to sanity; and c) healing emerges from shared struggle much better than from isolated toil.  I enjoy watching church friendships flourish that I know began at SAA meetings.


The recovery community calls sexual addiction “cunning, baffling, and dangerous.”  And so it is.

So the battle against it requires the heavy artillery of individual therapy.  We are fortunate in the Charlotte area to have a number of the nation’s leading therapeutic experts in the area of sex addiction, and so Good Shepherd keeps a ready list of referrals.

There are many, many forces at work that drive a man to sexual and pornographic addiction, and it generally takes the skill of an experienced therapist to uncover root causes and to craft coping strategies.

In cases of financial hardship, we underwrite up to five sessions of therapy.

We firmly believe that all three elements – spirituality, community, therapy – are indispensable.

I have met men who were either too private to join a community or too proud to enter therapy, and the results was a partial attempt at recovery.  And, as the Twelve Steppers remind us, “half measure availed us nothing.”

Pastoral Follow Up

I do my best to maintain contact with the guys who have trusted me with their stories and their struggles.  So, via text message, email, or phone call, I will periodically check-in with those under my pastoral care.  How you holding up?  How much sobriety do you have?  Are you making your meetings?

Without fail, the men appreciate being remembered and known.

And then when I get an email like the one below from the same guy who I mentioned in the opening of this article, it’s all worth it:

Dear Talbot,

I just want you to know how much this journey of healing has meant to me.  I feel free for the first time in my life.  Thank you for getting me in that group, thanks for (my therapist), and thanks for the prayers.

Carolyn Moore ~ The Secret of Joyful People

“I told you this so that my joy might be in you, so that your joy might be full.” — John 15:11

I love the image of a smiling Jesus. It always inspires me to wonder about the things Jesus might have smiled at. Children, certainly. I have a sense that no child in a marketplace ever escaped his smile. People in the wake of a healing, with their exclamations of wonder and thanksgiving. I bet he smiled at some of the things his disciples said, much like we smile at them today. And I’m guessing he laughed large whenever someone came to a realization of God’s truth. The day Zacchaeus got it, surely Jesus laughed for the sheer joy of the moment.

Now, compare that image with a scene I want you to paint in your mind. Imagine you’re in it. You are a citizen of a closed country. All your life, you’ve been told that the president of that country is a god, and that your country is a paradise. You’re told that a lot, maybe to help you believe it. Because you eat corn gruel. Every meal is corn gruel, and “every meal” is maybe two meals a day. Maybe. Just getting those two meals on the table (if you have a table) takes a lot of work. Your overwhelming thought all the time is food, and how to get it. You are always hungry.

And this is paradise.

You get no news from the outside and very few people from the outside know about you. This isn’t the primitive culture of a forgotten tribe in Africa. Your country has been industrialized. There are electrical wires and tall buildings in cities. But there is no electricity running through those wires. And there are no cars. No lights, no cars, no entertainment. From the sky at night, your country looks like a black hole. People who are old enough talk about the days when most homes had electricity. Lights and even radios. But those days are long gone. For the most part, the purchase of a car is against the law.

Except for a few jobs in mills, there is nothing else to do but farm poor soil or scrounge for food. And this is paradise.

You’d leave, except that leaving is also against the law, and punishable by death. And besides, as far as you know, this is as good as it gets. Sure, life is hard and no one talks badly about the president (your god) or the country without being punished for it. But other countries are hopeless. They don’t have your god, and the people are evil and they live far worse than you do. At least, that’s what you’ve been told.

You have heard of people who left. They snuck out. But for the most part, that has never been a thought to cross your mind. For the most part. You wouldn’t dare tell anyone, not even your mother (because spies are everywhere), but sometimes you wonder if this really is paradise. Sometimes you wonder if the president really is a god. After all, there have been famines in your land and you’re not sure there are famines in paradise.

So yes, you’ve wondered about things. And yes, you’ve wondered about leaving. And the more you wonder about leaving, the less sure you become of staying. You decide to learn more, and you discover that there is a way out. With enough money, you can sneak out of paradise. So late one night, you pay a border guard and cross a river, and on the other side, you find people who do something you have almost never seen. They smile. They are happy to see you, and they have set up a place just for people like you. They give you clothes (when is the last time you got a new set of clothes?), and food that is not corn gruel. It is simple but good. They have a place for you to sleep and the next day, when you’re thinking you’ll go out and find some more food, they bring another meal to you. And then another meal. And then another. Maybe for the first time in your life, you feel like a human. For the first time in your life, you’re beginning to feel like…not an animal or a puppet.

The people who run these shelters for people like you are something. They believe in freedom, and in taking care of people. And they believe in a god, too…who they call Jesus. They tell you all about him. It turns out he is not the god of one country, they say, but the God of the whole world. Even of the people who live in your country, even though they don’t know about him. They tell you about this God and his love and that he wants to set everyone free. Even people who live in prisons. There is a freedom, they say, that happens inside when you believe in this God. And this freedom creates the love these people show, and the joy and the peace.

In your own country people steal from each other. And lying is not unusual, but who can really blame them? That’s how it is when folks are just trying to survive. But these people who follow Jesus talk a lot about truth and about giving up their own rights for the sake of this truth. That’s a really different thought for you. You know what it means to have no rights or privileges. You’ve lived a lifetime like that. But to give up your rights freely for the sake of something bigger than yourself or your survival? That’s a radical thought.

They tell you that this is what it means to follow their God. This Jesus. While it doesn’t make sense, the more you look at these people, the more you want it. They laugh. They hold their heads high (in your country, people who follow a foreign god are often forced to hold their heads down). They serve, and it’s a blessing. You’re learning to smile.

And then, you get caught. You are taken back across the river to your old country where they toss you into a filthy, crowded prison and a return to daily starvation. You are interrogated regularly (with force) for the purpose of getting you to renounce all you’ve been taught. But here in the midst of this suffering, you discover perhaps the most amazing thing of all: what they taught you across the border is even more true here than it was there. In this prison, you discover that this God of theirs doesn’t have borders. He really is God in any country. You know this to be true, because when you think about him while you’re sitting in this prison, you feel hope. You feel loved. You feel options.

This prison isn’t your truth; he is. This certainly isn’t joy, but he is. This isn’t freedom, but he is. Sitting in that prison, you discover what those people who took care of you possess. You discover a hunger for others to know this Jesus. Why should anyone be denied the right to his hope, this freedom that comes not from crossing borders, but from knowing the truth.

The story you’ve just imagined is being lived out right now, every day, among people living in North Korea. North Korea has the largest population in the world of what are called political prisoners, which is a broad category encompassing any offense against the state, including disrespect of the president. Citizens are imprisoned in their own country by a system ruled by a man who lives under the delusion that he is a god. They say North Koreans don’t smile much.

The story you’ve just imagined is also being lived out spiritually in many places, among people oppressed by a system of beliefs based on tyranny, force and legalism. Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament, lived most of his life under such a system. In fact, the very literal story we’ve just imagined could well have been his spiritual story. The Bible tells a story of a people who lost their connection with God. They were like a country that used to have electricity running through its wires. The Law that was supposed to build their character, teach them holiness and define boundaries in their relationship with God, became nothing more than one more oppression in an oppressive society. Rather than a goal of being perfect in love, they’d become sticklers for perfection. And any misstep was cause for punishment. That pursuit made them angry and bitter people. They were starving, spiritually. Imprisoned by a system of obedience that stole their smiles. Paul was raised in that culture.

Live like that long enough and either your heart grows hard or you start longing for life beyond the borders. Paul didn’t exactly long for that life, but when he encountered it on a road between cities he found it irresistible. Jesus himself walked Paul across the border into freedom, where Paul discovered those things — like love, joy and peace — that make life worth living. When they came for him and threw him into prison, it only intensified his passion for truth.

Paul’s letter to the Philippian church is written four years into his imprisonment in a dank, dark first-century jail. He would surely have gone without meals there, but it only made him hungry for souls. He may well have been chained to a prison guard, but it only made him obsessed with spiritual freedom. Not just for himself but for everyone. In a circumstance seemingly without hope, Paul writes an ode to joy. In each chapter, Paul explains his source of joy.

Chapter 1: My mood is rooted in something bigger than myself.

“Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” – Philippians 1:15-21

By the time Paul writes this letter, he has been in prison for at least four years, yet the overwhelming emotion in his communication with the church in Philippi is joy. He rejoices in Christ, rejoices in a community that has supported him, rejoices in the good news. His response defines the nature of spiritual joy:

• Joy is a spiritually generated response to God’s goodness.

• Joy is a deep down assurance that the quality of life is not rooted in feelings or circumstances, but in the love, cover and hope of a good and faithful God.

• Joy is a natural fruit of the Spirit-filled life.

Paul proves by his own testimony that the quality of life is not rooted in circumstances but in the care and cover of our Heavenly Father.

Chapter 2: My relationships are centered in partnership, not competition.

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” – Philippians 2:1-4.

Christians have overused the word fellowship (and have massacred it grammatically by trying to turn it into a verb!), but it is a rich word for us. It means “mutual support” or “living in unity.” Given those definitions, fellowship describes the spirit of the relationship between Paul and the Philippians. This is what held them together across the miles. The Philippians look to Paul for spiritual leadership and Paul finds delight in their faithfulness. His mood doesn’t depend on their acting or thinking the “right” way, but he can still delight in their faithfulness.

Chapter 3: My journey is focused on progress, not perfection.

“Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard.  Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.” – Philippians 3:1, 12-16.

Paul says, “forgetting what lies behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” As those pressing on toward the goal of holiness, we require the child within to step back so the adult can lead, because we understand that maturity is a source of joy.

Chapter 4: I practice joy by pursuing intimacy with God.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:4-7

Intimacy is hard! It requires vulnerability, and vulnerability means letting my guard down and being fully present. That is hard work. More and more, I’m convinced that discipline and the pursuit of the Holy Spirit are keys. The disciplines of prayer, personal devotion, and searching the Word for my own life are remarkably important. Pursuing the Holy Spirit and seeking his gifts and presence in my life, I discover closeness to the Father that bears the fruit of devotion.

Paul’s journey from the country of legalism into freedom in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit bore the fruit of the Spirit — love when before he’d only known hatred, joy in place of duty, peace in place of striving, patience in place of anger, kindness in place of “breathing threats and murder” (Acts 9:1), goodness in place of spiritual pride, faithfulness in place of self-righteousness, gentleness in place of legalism and self-control in place of self-imprisonment. He teaches us that there is another country where we, too, can be free, and where we, too, can find joy.

Will you pray?

Lord, I want to live in that world where my relationship with you is defined by love, joy and peace in any circumstance. I want to give more of myself to you so I can discover more of your heart. I want freedom. I want to be filled with the Holy Spirit, like electricity running through a wire. I want to know you intimately, and I ask now that you help me let go of pride so I can confess any sins that stand between me and a growing relationship with you. I want to be able to say with David, “In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (Psalm 16:11). Speak to these deep longings, Father, and hear my prayer, in Jesus’ name. Amen.