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TAKE OUT THE GARBAGE
SAY IT IN A SENTENCE:
True life change comes only through partnership with God and begins by rejecting all self-centered change methods.
I love to tell stories of change—dramatic, detailed accounts of the transforming power of almighty God. When I was writing the first edition of Lord Change Me, the curtain was coming down on the 20th century. The frenzy of the moment was Y2K and the fear that the end of computerized civilization was near. Among the retrospectives on the century, I don't remember much attention given to some of the remarkable people who became Christians during the previous 100 years. People like G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, A. W. Tozer, Billy Graham, and many other notables came to faith in Christ. All except the last one I listed have been dead for a while. The testimony of their lives is finished and sealed. They joined the race, kept the faith, and crossed the finish line. Other people came to faith in such unusual circumstances that their conversions were met with derision. Frankly, celebrity conversions are usually put in the same category with foxhole conversions and aren't expected to create lasting change. But some people change and their conversion stands the test of time. One remarkable story of God's grace features Chuck Colson. Now there's a guy who got changed! He was on President Richard Nixon's political team. He was the most brutal, ruthless, get-out-of-my-way-or-I'll-kill-you kind of guy. As a gung-ho presidential aide, he once said, "I would walk over my grandmother if necessary to assure the president's reelection."
In the early 1970s, however, Colson's whole world came crashing down. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the Watergate case and served seven months at Maxwell Federal Prison in Georgia. He was shamed before the whole world.
In the midst of that, Chuck Colson found a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. As he went into prison and began to articulate and grow in his faith, many people thought, "Yeah, right. Chuckie's got religion. What a joke. It'll never last." But you know what? It did. Chuck is no longer the celebrity he was in the 1970s but for believers, his story of change remains compelling.
Colson said, "I don't just want to be saved. I don't just want to be forgiven. I want to be changed." He has been changed and has emerged as one of the greatest Christian leaders in our world today. He is a powerful force. His life touches hundreds of thousands of men and women in prison every year through a ministry he began called Prison Fellowship. He's an author, writer, and leader who is tireless in his effort to get out the good news about Jesus. Colson has received many awards for his impact upon our world.
Chuck Colson went from ruthless political hatchet man to loving selfless minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Transformed! And you can be too!
TAKING OUT THE GARBAGE
"Take out the garbage!" It was never a gentle command at my house growing up. Instead, it was a harsh order, barked at high volume, designed to produce an action that everyone loathed. Amazingly, in a family of four boys, each child usually remembered somehow having taken his turn at the dreaded task just the previous week. To this day I loathe taking out the garbage. Why? Simply because nothing was in those bags that I wanted to save, just gross food remains and wrappers and things that ... well, garbage.
In this chapter we have to take out some garbage, and you may not like it. It's going to be somewhat negative. The reason for the negativity is really quite simple: I believe and have observed that the number one reason we don't change is because at some time in the past we have attempted to change, then failed, and in the process have been deeply hurt. After trying that a few times, we give up. We conclude that the only pain worse than needing to change is trying to change and failing.
Now I need to let you know: When we pursue God's plan for change, it always works. If you've tried to change and failed, it's because you've tried to change according to an unbiblical method. That's the garbage we need to take out: faulty change methods! We need to uncover the faulty change methods, and then we need to sweep them off the table and into the trash so that we can once-and-for-all focus exclusively on God's program for change. It's ugly work, but it's gotta get done if we're gonna change.
I've heard someone say, "If I keep doing what I've always done, I'm going to keep getting what I've always gotten." That's right, isn't it? We're going to look at three faulty psychological methods for change and three faulty spiritual methods for change—the things we've always done. We'll see how they're just trash, worthless. Are you with me? Let's do it together. Let's take out the trash!
Faulty Method #1: Environmental Change
Environmental change is an approach made popular by John Watson and later by B. F. Skinner. You might recognize this concept as behaviorism, which is a popular—but faulty—approach to change. Behaviorism is the idea that the environment conditions a person to behave in certain ways, that you are the result of the environment that you have come from. Therefore, change the environment and you will change.
Skinner and Watson relied heavily upon the findings of an experiment conducted by a Russian psychologist named Pavlov. You may have heard of the experiment or of Pavlov himself. He was the dude with the slobbering dogs. Pavlov would put food in front of a dog and the dog would begin to salivate. Then Pavlov rang a bell just seconds before the food appeared. After countless repetitions of hearing the bell followed by getting tasty food, the dog would salivate simply upon hearing the bell, even when no food was laid out. Pavlov concluded that the dog had been changed by his environment and called it conditioning.
From these findings, Pavlov, and later Skinner and Watson, concluded that most, if not all, human behavior is the result of conditioning.
As with most psychological theory, there is some validity here. Certainly behavior is influenced by patterns of thinking formed over a long period of time. The problem with behaviorism is twofold:
1. A cause/effect relationship does not necessarily exist between environment and change. In fact, studies have been done on identical twins from the exact same environment. You would expect them to grow into very similar adults but often they turn out as different as day and night. Though it may be a factor in who you become, environment is not the determining cause in character formation or in transformation.
2. Changing the environment does not automatically change the person. A perfect environment does not lead to a perfect person. Wasn't that the original setting? Adam and Eve had a pretty good environment in Eden, a beautiful and bountiful garden setting. God Almighty Himself said that it was perfect (see Genesis 1:31), and yet Adam and Eve sinned! So environment does not control who I become.
Consider the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Now there was a guy who said, "You know what? I'm going to change my environment. I'm not really liking my dad these days. I'm so tired of working on this stupid farm. My brother's getting on my nerves. And their lifestyle is way too restrictive for me. I'm blowing outta here." (I'm paraphrasing now.)
You can read the story yourself in Luke 15:
"There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.' And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need" (verses 11–14).
He finally found a job at a farm. There he ended up feeding pigs and wanting to eat what the pigs were eating. "But when he came to himself," verses 17 and 18 report, "he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you."'"
Now here's the point: He originally thought the problem was his environment: his family, the way he had been brought up, the lifestyle that he had been given. So he took off and got a new environment. The Bible says, "When he came to himself" he figured out that he was the problem, not his environment. Maybe you have been struggling to change and tempted by the notion that a change of environment will change the way you're feeling. A new job or a new city or a new spouse. "Out with the old and in with the new and then I will be happy." It's a lie!
The depth of the lie that external fixes are the answer can be seen in the human wreckage recorded almost daily in the tabloids. A recent tragic example is the life of Amy Winehouse, a British musical star who was found dead in her apartment at the age of twenty-seven. Her ten-year career was a mix of musical successes and troubled personal life, punctuated by drug and alcohol abuse. She is probably best known for her hit single "Rehab," in which she made public her refusal to get help with her obvious substance problems. She represents the countless millions who deal with their inner longing for meaningful change by trying to inoculate themselves with alcohol and drugs. For Amy and so many, the environmental change offered through rehab centers is a failure highlighted by the revolving door effect of the experience. Celebrities often seem to arrange "frequent visitor" passes with rehab locations, hoping one of the stays is going to "take." Perhaps Amy realized at some level that no amount of rehab would help her—she needed change that wouldn't happen by going somewhere for treatment. In the end, success and the adulation of millions couldn't overcome the struggle Amy faced and she apparently settled for an escalation of destructive behavior that led to her alcohol-related death. Her tragic end is a warning to all of us of the destructive ends of sin if it is never resolved by the Redeemer.
Our problem is inside us, not around us. We are the ones who need to change, not our environment. Behaviorism is deceptive window dressing; it does not work. That's going in the trash.
Faulty Method #2: Change By Digging Up My Past
A popular notion today is "I am the way I am because of my past." The psychological theory that seeks to remedy our problems from the past is psychoanalysis. An Austrian physician named Sigmund Freud developed it well over a hundred years ago. Freud taught that human behavior is determined by painful memories that are buried in our subconscious mind. Freud believed that we force from our conscious mind any awareness of thoughts, needs, or experiences that are unacceptable to us or to others and try to bury them deep inside ourselves. What psychoanalysis says is this: "There's something back there. You're not aware of it, but it's back there and it's very dark. You may not remember it, but it's controlling you. It's your past. It's your parents. It's some painful experience. And it's making you fearful. It's making you angry. It's making you depressed."
Psychoanalysis teaches, "You've got to dig it up and spill your guts! Figure out what that thing is and get it out. And until you do, you will never really change."
The problem with all of this is that you are continually cast in the victim role. But you do not have to accept that role. You are not a victim. Awful things may have happened to you, but they do not control you! You may let them control, but they don't have that power in themselves. Romans 8:1 says, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." Once you are in Christ, nothing can condemn you, knock you down, or grind you under its heel. You are a son or a daughter of the Living God! You are not a victim. Romans 8:31 says, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" The answer is: No one can. God is for you!
Romans 8:37 says, "In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us."Nothing has happened or will happen that, by God's grace, you can't climb on top of and rule over and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, be set free from. But first we've got to dump faulty plans for change that don't work, like constant digging in the past.
Instead of endless trips down painful memory lane, the biblical message is quite the opposite. Here's God's message:
THE KEY TO CHANGE IS FORGETTING, NOT REMEMBERING.
What does that mean? It means facing what you do remember, forgiving it, and forgetting it. And that's the order that it happens: face, forgive, and forget. Don't try to forget without forgiving. Don't try to forgive without facing. But after you face it, by God's grace you forgive it. And then you forget it. And don't waste time wondering about what you can't remember—let God take care of that!
Consider the life of Joseph. If anyone was a candidate for ten years of therapy because of a painful past, it was Joseph. This guy was coddled by his father and pampered as the favorite to the point that even though he developed faith in God at an early age, he was so socially awkward that he offended his brothers. Jacob's unwise preferential treatment was evident in his gift to Joseph of a coat that was the envy of his older siblings, who ridiculed and ultimately rejected him. His efforts to tell his family what God was showing him in dreams came across to them as prideful to the point that even Jacob wondered what was going on with Joseph. Finally, when they caught him alone one day, Joseph's ten brothers stripped him naked, threw him into a pit to die, then hauled him out and sold him as a slave in Egypt. They decided a living death in slavery was a more fitting vengeance on their little brother than leaving him to die in a hole. Now would that mess with your mind?
Then Joseph got a job in Egypt; he was working hard and trying to build a life for himself. He was living for God and providing good service to his owner. Soon he was managing that household with incredible efficiency. But when his boss's wife tried to seduce him, Joseph responded with words that give us a glimpse into his character: "How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?" (Genesis 39:9). She flipped out and falsely accused him of trying to rape her. Unable to defend himself, Joseph was chained up in some rat-infested prison and completely forgotten for several years.
Now you would think that Joseph would be messed up for life or certainly would need endless hours of therapy to process all that pain. Yet the Bible teaches something quite different. In all of it, Joseph saw a sovereign God who was at work. Was Joseph devastated at times? Yes, but he was not destroyed. Were there pain and loneliness and heartache and, at times, despair? Yes, but Joseph found a better way to deal with his pain. He would forget the injustice, trust a wise and sovereign God, and move ahead with his life. He gained the trust of his jailer and was soon managing the prison as he had managed the house of Potiphar. God gave him favor. Instead of fighting his situations, he trusted God to help him advance through even the most difficult circumstances. His was not an easy journey by any means, but he ended up right where God wanted him.
Imagine the day the Pharaoh sent a limousine to the prison to transport Joseph to the palace. In one sense it was the biggest test Joseph had ever faced—put on the spot to interpret the king's dream. In another sense it was the moment God had been preparing Joseph for to display His glory. He stood before Pharaoh without missing a beat and said, "It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer" (Genesis 41:16). As tempting as it may have been to "work" the change opportunity, Joseph never took an ounce of credit for the news he delivered to the king. "The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do" (Genesis 41:25).
Later, when the famine struck and even the sons of Jacob found themselves traveling all the way to Egypt to look for food, Joseph did not take advantage of the "turned tables" to take vengeance on his brothers. In Genesis 45:8, Joseph looked into the eyes of the brothers who did so much to hurt him and said, "It was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt."
Just to make sure the point is made, the Scripture quotes Joseph affirming that message once more in Genesis 50:20a. "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good." Did they sin against him? Yes! Was it evil? Yes! But did God use it for Joseph's good? Yes! God did. As a confirmation that Joseph found healing by forgetting his past, he named his first son Manasseh, which means "the Lord made me forget." Between thinking about the pain of the past and thinking about the delight of his relationship with God, Joseph chose God. The only time he even mentioned the past was when his brothers revealed their own load of guilt and kept bringing it up. Joseph lived free from his past because he let God take care of that part of his life.
There's a lesson on change right there: asking God for the grace to forget my past. This digging-up-the-past thing is a worldly and faulty method of change. Transformation is not about remembering, and it's not about digging up things that may or may not have even happened! It's about forgiving and forgetting. It's about trusting a sovereign God. It's about focusing in on my own need to change and saying with the apostle Paul, "forgetting what lies behind" (Philippians 3:13).
Excerpted from Lord Change Me by James MacDonald, Neil Wilson. Copyright © 2012 James MacDonald. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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