Archive for the ‘Decision making’ Category

How do I know when my enjoyment of something becomes a sinful idol?

John Piper writes:
Idolatry will destroy our relationship with God. And it will destroy our relationships with people. All human relational problems—from marriage and family to friendship to neighbors to classmates to colleagues—all of them are rooted in various forms of idolatry, that is, wanting things other than God in wrong ways.
So here is my effort to think biblically about what those wrong ways are. What makes an enjoyment idolatrous? What turns a desire into covetousness, which is idolatry?

1. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it is forbidden by God. For example, adultery and fornication and stealing and lying are forbidden by God. Some people at some times feel that these are pleasurable, or else we would not do them. No one sins out of duty. But such pleasure is a sign of idolatry.

2. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it is disproportionate to the worth of what is desired. Great desire for non-great things is a sign that we are beginning to make those things idols.

3. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it is not permeated with gratitude. When our enjoyment of something tends to make us not think of God, it is moving toward idolatry. But if the enjoyment gives rise to the feeling of gratefulness to God, we are being protected from idolatry. The grateful feeling that we don’t deserve this gift or this enjoyment, but have it freely from God’s grace, is evidence that idolatry is being checked.

4. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it does not see in God’s gift that God himself is more to be desired than the gift. If the gift is not awakening a sense that God, the Giver, is better than the gift, it is becoming an idol.

5. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it is starting to feel like a right, and our delight is becoming a demand. It may be that the delight is right. It may be that another person ought to give you this delight. It may be right to tell them this. But when all this rises to the level of angry demands, idolatry is rising.

6. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it draws us away from our duties. When we find ourselves spending time pursuing an enjoyment, knowing that other things, or people, should be getting our attention, we are moving into idolatry.

7. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it awakens a sense of pride that we can experience this delight while others can’t. This is especially true of delights in religious things, like prayer and Bible reading and ministry. It is wonderful to enjoy holy things. It idolatrous to feel proud that we can.

8. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it is oblivious or callous to the needs and desires of others. Holy enjoyment is aware of others’ needs and may temporarily leave a good pleasure to help another person have it. One might leave private prayer to be the answer to someone else’s.

9. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it does not desire that Christ be magnified as supremely desirable through the enjoyment. Enjoying anything but Christ (like his good gifts) runs the inevitable risk of magnifying the gift over the Giver. One evidence that idolatry is not happening is the earnest desire that this not happen.

10. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when it is not working a deeper capacity for holy delight. We are sinners still. It is idolatrous to be content with sin. So we desire transformation. Some enjoyments shrink our capacities of holy joy. Others enlarge them. Some go either way, depending on how we think about them. When we don’t care if an enjoyment is making us more holy, we are moving into idolatry.

11. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when its loss ruins our trust in the goodness of God. There can be sorrow at loss without being idolatrous. But when the sorrow threatens our confidence in God, it signals that the thing lost was becoming an idol.

12. Enjoyment is becoming idolatrous when its loss paralyzes us emotionally so that we can’t relate lovingly to other people. This is the horizontal effect of losing confidence in God. Again: Great sorrow is no sure sign of idolatry. Jesus had great sorrow. But when desire is denied, and the effect is the emotional inability to do what God calls us to do, the warning signs of idolatry are flashing.

For myself and for you, I pray the admonition of 1 John 5:21, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

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Twitter notified me of a new message. “Paring back some of the trading long rentals to be safe in here, volume wanting but action the world’s fair.” The cryptic message from a fellow stock trader launched me into a burst of anxious action.

I was a stock trader. Every morning at 6am my eyes popped open, and I would check futures to see where the market was headed. I would keep the trading platform open all day on my laptop, even during classes. Last thing before bed, I was watching market trading recap videos- from various guru traders- with my eyes set on the following day.

My fiercely competitive personality bred an anxiety that bled me of joy and peace. My emotions followed the ticker tape. Account up $750 today? I’m soaring into the clouds of bliss, though they are tinged grey on the underbelly with the discontented wish for $1,000. Slipped $800 into the red? I’ll harbor a poisonous defeated feeling that will seep out as irritability in relationships throughout the day. A particularly draining series of down days released anger to ricochet through my heart with an unwelcome sting, flashing a glaring warning signal I was slow to investigate. My heart was blindly whoring after an idol that devoured all of my time and controlled all of my emotions.

“…If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” Those words are true. My conscience would not leave me alone, and the Spirit spoke through the scriptures often. I fought back. Why was it such a problem? Why couldn’t I earn a living in stock trading world? Couldn’t it be akin to tent-making? There are other Christian stock traders, why can’t I be one? Why did I feel like I had to justify this to God in the first place?

The justifications barricaded my heart when the Spirit spoke through the word. The justifications were most ardent when the Spirit called for me to count all as loss in order to know Christ. Not that investing is evil in itself, yet it was keeping my heart from pursuing Christ. There was no need to justify my passion for the stock market when my heart was comfortably lukewarm. A lukewarm heart and the stock market were perfectly compatible, and fed off of each other. Yet when my hunger for God was roused, it could never be satisfied because I had no room to study and meditate on the Word and commune with God when stock charts filled my head every spare moment of the day. I admired one stock trader who said something to the effect of, “Don’t trade stocks on Fridays, because then you will be distracted all weekend while the market is closed, wondering if you were right to buy the stock. Save the weekend for church and family.” My admiration for that man revealed my heart attitude. “God, you can have my weekends. The rest is mine. I’ll honor the Sabbath, but worship other gods the rest of the week.” I thought it was a noble thing to be so devoted to God as to clear the weekend for Him.

I continued to wander in the desert. I found enough time for God only to know that I was missing more than I could imagine. Could I afford to continue to pay that price? What if I did gain the whole world, or even just a home-run stock pick? Was it worth starving myself spiritually and losing communion with my God? I didn’t want to answer those questions. God’s Word was abundantly clear: if anything in my life rises above God, whether it is intrinsically evil or not, it is an idol and it is rubbish. A close friend, after hearing me spill my heart out on the matter, could see I was torn between two loves. “I don’t see why you are still doing it if what you say is true and it is taking God’s place.” The words were blunt and I had no good response. God was speaking to me personally in His Word, and speaking to me through a friend who could see the low place God had fallen to in my life, even though I was blind.

Then I was broken. Christ took the throne of my heart one night as I cried out in prayer for hours. God, take me. All of me. I won’t hide from the pain or clutch at the rubbish anymore, tear it away, plow my fallow ground and prepare my heart for Your rain of righteousness.

The following morning, I liquidated my stock holdings. I feared that if I delayed a minute, black and white might turn to grey again and I might remain ensnared. I wanted out. Now. My longing heart was desperate for the quiet waters of the Lord. Let me be clear: I do not believe investing is evil in itself, and I do believe anything can take God’s place and become an idol. The problem was that I had given my life over to the markets, dethroning God. When an activity dethrones God and sabotages my relationships with God and man, it is a toxic lie that has deceived me into sacrificing joy Christ died to bring me for bondage Christ paid to release me from. And if such an activity has to be utterly abandoned to restore communion with God, so be it. Some things can not be abandoned and must be restored to a proper place in subjection to Christ. Yet others, as in my particular case, must be cut off.

For the first week after ceasing to day trade, I still woke up at 6am. Strong habits did not fade over night, and neither did the strange aimless feeling that followed suddenly giving up what once consumed my life. All of the short-cut buttons on my web browsers were links to stock trading websites. My computer desktop was covered in trading files. I cleaned and prayed. “Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.”

God is faithful. He opens the eyes of the blind, He pursues the hearts of the wandering. He gives wisdom to those that ask for the right reasons. He works through the body of Christ to bring words of insight and discernment to those who are lost. His grace is poured out for His own name’s sake. Glory to His name, His surpassing worth floods my heart with a joy and satisfaction that could never be found in the all-consuming world of day trading.

Recounting the story feels like trying to sort through a jumble. But it is a story that ends with a thankful heart. There is one who has paid our ransom, purchased our bodies so that we are not our own. We do not have a life to call our own, to spend as we please on rubbish. And the One who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it, just as a shepherd pulls a wandering lamb back. God, rescue us from the rubbish heap.

Do you have a similar experience? Has God brought something to your mind that is costing you more than you can afford to pay?

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837127_98553547Thy will be done
The Lord’s prayer offers insight for the bewildered saint who is struggling for answers, for it offers hope of clear vision through clouds of personal interests and biases. This clear vision can be found when we fall to our knees with a heart that cries “thy will be done.” The cry relinquishes all personal control, transfers it wholly to the Father, and submits to His sovereignty, which is an act of faith in His goodness coupled with a distrust of self’s ability to perceive things clearly. God’s will then engulfs our own and nails self to the cross to die.

Be Thou My Vision
Then we see, and we can at last trust in the Lord with all our heart, not leaning on our own understanding, but following the straight path of His will. Only humility paired with faith will lead us to this straight path found on the stones of surrender that break the heart of its arrogant attempts to trust its own vision.

Approaching God’s Word
This surrendered attitude leads us to come to God’s Word in communion seeking His will instead of coming to the Bible as a self-help reference book of proof texts useful for justifying our fleshly desires. If these fleshly desires are willing to be counted as rubbish if God labels them so, then we are free to read His Word more objectively in search for guidance. Our difficult decision will not suddenly become easy, yet the Truth can shine light to enable us to discern rubbish from treasure. All that glitter is not gold. In low light, tin foil gum wrappers gleam. Oh how we need our righteousness to be brought forth like the light as we walk a path committed to the Lord. As we walk that path, God’s Word is the appropriate nourishment for for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil .

2 Tactics for decision making
Because we believe God’s Word holds the key to spiritual discernment, we will use tactics based on Scripture when endeavoring to separate rubbish from treasure.

1. Seek God in the quiet. Since it is difficult to hear the Holy Spirit through the noise- audible or mental- that busyness creates, it is best if we will slow down and be still before God. To-do lists sitting on the desk, music blaring from the iPod, deadlines pulling us into a rush, inboxes overflowing with email, texts that demand a response, and our many other activities add to the busyness and keep us from ever having an uninterrupted moment to meditate in quiet wonder upon the glory of God. Yet God promises wisdom to those who will come before Him and make their request. Another Biblical idea that I am still exploring is seeking God in His sanctuary, literally. In Psalm 73:16-17, things become clear in God’s sanctuary. It was also where Hezekiah went to seek the Lord after receiving a difficult letter from the King of Assyria. The letter was laid before God on the temple steps, and God guided Hezekiah (Anyone have thoughts on that? I will try to explore it more, and maybe even give it a try next time I face a difficult decision).

2. Seek wise counsel. We are in a position of weakness whenever our heart is in the matter. Because we can be easily deceived and hardened by sin, we must go to someone who is willing to be honest with us. Qualities to look for in our counselor are spiritual insight, a gift of discernment, a strong relationship with God, and knowledge of the Bible. It is spiritual arrogance to believe we can find the answer from the inside without help from the body. Sure, we might find the answer alone, but two can stand stronger and a three-fold cord is not easily broken.

The bottom line
We need spiritual discernment, not a cookie-cutter 3-step solution for dealing with difficult spiritual decisions that the heart has tangled with justifications and excuses. For example: “Is the Lord telling me to give up my lawful, yet unprofitable rubbish?” Spiritual discernment to know the difference between unprofitable rubbish (even if lawful) and profitable treasure is developed by feeding on God’s Word. The question ought to be brought before God in the quiet, and before a brother or sister in Christ who advise me from outside the tangle.

One last note
Let’s give God room to work His will. We must listen to what He wants to say, not only what we want to hear. The answer may hurt or break us, plowing up follow ground in order for the rain of righteousness to pour down. We may feel insecure and helpless in the fact of vast uncertainty, as Abram might have felt when God called Him to leave his home and go to a land untold.

What would these principles look like in practice?
In the next post in this series, we will dissect a difficult decision, a recent story of God breaking my own heart and revealing sin. We can see what went wrong, and what worked. We will see that my story is not a story of my faithfulness, but of God’s faithfulness in spite of my lack.

What are your thoughts? What has helped you sort out difficult decisions?

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confused-1The gray areas: here comes confusion
Our hearts will recoil after the Holy Spirit identifies pieces of rubbish that we have treasured, and a battle with ensue. Why is it difficult to let go of rubbish? Because difficult choices frequently deal with grey areas where easy answers and clear cut lines are nonexistent. How then can we make sense of the grey areas? We will continue to cling to the rubbish as long we see potential for value. We will only discard rubbish once we count it as loss. Thus, we need a way to inspect and assay our treasures.

Know your heart
First, we must know our hearts.

Our hearts are deceitful
It is deceitful and desperately wicked.  Following the advice to “just follow your heart” will lead you down a crooked path. We must account for these facts if we are to ever deal with the heart on realistic terms when making decisions.

Our hearts do not want to be broken
An aversion to pain is planted so deep within the heart that the seeker of spiritual brokenness will be met almost instantly with a barrage of justifications aimed to lock the heart within the bounds of comfort. This bias frustrates attempts at spiritual discernment. While the Holy Spirit speaks through God’s word on one side, our human idols of comfort, ease, and temporal pleasure beckon to us on the other.

Ploys of the heart to deceive
Since we know that the heart is deceitful and will attempt to avoid brokenness or discomforted, we can apply this knowledge to decision making. The our hearts use justifications to muddy the waters, allowing garbage to infiltrate the treasury. If we call garbage what it is, we probably would not let it into the treasury. Yet our hearts desire the garbage- we fall for sin’s lie that it will be more satisfying than righteousness- so we let it slip in under another name that justifies its presence in the treasury. What are some of these justifications?

  • Others do it
  • The Bible doesn’t say it is specifically wrong
  • It is a spiritual benefit
  • I need to do this to be able to relate to the world
  • Not all non-spiritual things are evil

Now what?
The problem is [at least] twofold. First, each of the justifications have a valid argument behind that counters what the Holy Spirit’s promptings. Justifications capitalize off of the uncertainty and obscurity of the situation, causing us to doubt whether or not we are hearing the Holy Spirt or just our own mind. The simple yet strong justification is difficult to dismiss, and attempting to do so feels like getting caught in the crossfire between friendly forces. We doubt, then second guess the sound, then doubt the second guess. Second, something deadly within our heart actually desires the forbidden. We want to do right, yet there is a rival desire for fleshly evil. Our flesh has an edge often simply because of our selfish desire for worldly pleasure, passion that wage war against our soul. The justifications  we produce are often a giveaway that this a fleshly desire exists and can not get past our conscience unless rigorously justified. But can we label confidently label that fleshly desire evil? Can we label the thing we desire evil? If it is evil, how to we find out? What if is lawful, just not profitable? How can we move past the justifications to sort it all out?

We will begin to tackle all of that in the next post.

Can you think of other justifications the heart uses, maybe from your own experience?

Related posts:
The value of garbage is still zero (Part 1)

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1127200_79734564Value what is most valuable
Philipians 3:7-8
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ”

The question is simple: Do we value what is most valuable?

3 question to help us discover what we value
1. What people, activities, or things consume most of our time?
2. What rouses our emotions (anger, joy, etc)?
3. What do we require to feel happy, secure, or fulfilled?

Smaller when kneeling
My love for Christ always looks larger when I stand than when I am on my knees. Standing, my discernment is blurred in a haze of pride. On my knees, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). When that word discerns the thoughts and intentions of my heart, my love for Christ loses its inflated appearance.

God and self have rival views
Dare we ask God, not ourself, how He views our passions that compete for His throne in our life? I’ve been giving myself favorable answers lately about several areas of life. God is breaking me. I had been valuing refuse out of the garbage heap.

Can you think of another way to discover what you value? I appreciate your thoughts.

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