I used to serve as the deacon of grounds at our church, and weeds were my worst enemies. Weeds are the bullies of the domestic plant world. They steal the precious resources needed for growth from your grass and flowers, and they make no apologies about it. So, they must die. A yardman accepts this duty, and he makes his plan. But not all weeds are created equal, and not all will die with the same efforts. Some are small enough to pull up with your hands. Some require a hand tool. Others take even heavier implements such as shovels, machetes, and even nuclear warheads.
There was one weed on the church property in particular that mocked me. This one was tree-like, stretching far above my head, growing from a well-established root system woven into the very foundation of the church building. Every season, I would take a hatchet, a shovel, and even poison to it. Nothing would kill it. Every time I cut back the visible growth, it would grow back. The main problem was that the root system had integrated into the foundation of the building. And that is a great illustration for how addictions distinguish themselves from the normal habitual sins of life.The unique death of an addiction
When considering how a person can kill addictions in his life, the different levels of effort required for these different types of weeds serve as a helpful illustration. Addictions always involve some idolatry of the heart that, when pursued repeatedly, conditions the soul and the body in such a way that the freedom of personhood becomes warped, bent toward a particular object and, far worse, bent away from God. When this happens, the most entrenched kind of sin takes over a person’s motivations. Addictions are less like a bunch of little weeds out in the open and more like the one weed integrated into the foundation of a building. Addictions thread their roots through the expectations and desires of the soul as well as the impulses and cravings of the body.
So when we speak of putting addictions to death, we have to be careful with what we mean. What I don’t want to communicate is that killing addictions is like pulling up a small weed, root and all, so that it no longer remains a threat. What I do mean is that killing addictions is like going to war with the thick tangle of roots that has penetrated the foundation. It’s about consistently cutting back any sign of growth so that, with no growing leaves to catch the sun’s energy, the roots will weaken their structural hold on the foundation.
Like that one weed, addictions do not die in a decisive action. They die over a long period of time. Of course, we must recognize that God is able to — and sometimes does — free someone decisively from the draw of a particular addiction in a miraculous act. But why does it normally take an involved process over time rather than merely a simple action in a moment? The answer is theological.
God designed us to conform — body and soul — to what we pursue. When we pursue a particular object as a replacement for God over and over again, we condition our bodies and our souls in the shape of that pursuit. In terms of the body, addictive behavior works itself into our neurobiological hardware, our chemical dependencies, and our bodily cravings. The structures of our bodies become dependent on substances not normally needed to sustain life. In terms of the soul, addictive behavior patterns itself into our conception of joy, satisfaction, and wonder; we find ourselves committed to finding those immaterial values in material things. We worship created things rather than the Creator — we become committed to finding God-like value in a particular object that is not God (Rom 1:21–25).
A body and soul conditioned by such pursuits undermines the freedom of personal choice. That’s not to say that an addict is any less culpable for his behavior, nor is it to say that his behavior is any less voluntary. It’s all voluntary, but in a stretched-out kind of way rather than a punctuated kind of way. Addictions are a broad series of choices rather than a singular choice on a given Friday evening.Kill it by pursuit
If we think of the voluntary nature of addictions in this way, we will create a more realistic and effective plan of action against it. Instead of treating addictions as something a person can decisively choose to rid himself of in a single come-to-Jesus moment, we ought to think of treating addictions as a series of new choices that accumulate into a new pursuit. Killing addictions, then, means helping a struggler think of his responsibility with a specific verbal force to it: not, “You need to kill this addiction,” but rather, “You need to be killing this addiction.” It’s a practice, not a mere action. It’s a new pursuit that kills an old one.
How do we kill one pursuit with another? It’s helpful to think of a pursuit as a series of tasks. These are tasks — not steps. Calling them steps would imply a strict sequence. These are more like the regular actions a person needs to take in order to mortify addictions.
- Find the roots in the foundation and acknowledge their strength.
In other words, be honest with God, yourself, and others about how ingrained the desires for the particular object have become.
Desires have a physical and a spiritual element, working their way deep into the structures of the body and soul. While recognizing the unique external difficulties that may have provoked the addictive pursuit, an addict must nevertheless acknowledge his physical and spiritual weakness. Physical dependence on a substance often requires medically assisted detoxification as part of the initial treatment. The body has been conditioned to need the substance, and the cravings a person experiences are grounded in the very structure of his body. An addict should acknowledge that the craving is in part a physiological consequence of past behavior, and therefore not a reliable guide for present behavior. When he feels something as a “need,” it is not because it truly is one, but because he has conditioned his body to think it is.
But desires are not just physical; they are also spiritual. They rival desires for what God says is good, and they are therefore not neutral. They are not just wanting the object itself, but something deeper than the object promises to provide—lasting satisfaction, escape from sorrow, settled peace. An addict must see the deeper value being promised by the surface object, then repent of his dark loyalties and acknowledge his helplessness to change them.
Acknowledging the idolatry and the helplessness will bring both grief and fear. Grief and fear are actually proper responses to the reality of what’s at stake: the heart is inclined to worship an object that will destroy it. Can you imagine how the family of an addict would rejoice to see grief and fear mark his life as a pattern of vigilance rather than merely as part of his regret? Such sober-mindedness is a sign of life (1 Thess 5:5–11).
This is the gospel for addicts: Because Jesus provides all the righteousness they need, they can safely acknowledge before God all of the grievous, frightening things about themselves. They may have roots in the foundation that others don’t—but that is no reason to shy away from God. In fact, the only way out of the addiction involves this painful task of acknowledgment. They must form a habit of describing these desires to God in prayer. As people pour out the particularities of their need for forgiveness and strength, they will find the particularities of grace to help in times of need (Heb 4:14–16).
- Cut back the visible growth from the roots.
Such honest vigilance over desires will increase alertness to behaviors that reinforce addictive pursuits. Not all addictive behaviors directly relate to acquiring the object of addiction itself. Behaviors can be conditioning as well as explicit in their pursuit of the object. For instance, an alcoholic may place himself in the bar on a Thursday afternoon, but he may also be conditioning himself with other behaviors such as overworking. Alcohol becomes the assumed refuge of escape.
As with desires, an addict has to be honest with God about his behaviors. Not just the behavior of giving in but the thousand little choices that lead up to it. Part of acknowledging these behaviors before God is acknowledging them before God’s people (Heb 3:12–13). An addict will need people who are regularly present enough in his life to notice these behaviors if he’s going to remain vigilant.
This is the toughest part of ministry to folks struggling with addictions—the sheer level of oversight is difficult to maintain, especially in situations where the person’s regular circles undermine change and reinforce old patterns. Helping an addict requires an appreciation of the social aspects of addiction. For success, an addict must place himself in ideal relational conditions insofar as he’s able.
- Grow something else that’s beautiful.
Do small acts of obedience that establish some new, God-honoring pursuit. In a world of sunlight and water, growth is going to happen.
The question is, what gets prominence in the limited resources of a person’s time, attention, and energy? An addict needs help in establishing some replacement pursuit. Here we have to think holistically. It’s not just about getting him to read the Bible and pray more, but to see how the pursuit of God in those things then compels other pursuits in the regular occupations of life. A person who finds God privately is freed to enjoy the good things of the earth without being bound by them (1 Tim 4:4–5). An addict needs to relearn that enjoyment comes from many sources other than the object that has captured him.
You know, I never did kill that stupid weed. But I made it to the end of my diaconal term without its doing any more damage to the foundation or to the grass around it. How? I never stopped killing it. God doesn’t promise instant death to the addiction or that it will be easy to fight. What he promises to those who trust only in him is that they will always have the strength to be killing it. And in the end, it won’t win.
Editor’s note: This article was originally publishedat Ligonier.
“As there are no little people in God’s sight, so there are no little places.” I remember where I was the first time I heard this quote from Francis Schaeffer’s work No Little People. I was sitting in the congregation as a visitor at Hulen Street Church in Fort Worth (where I have now been a member for five years). As a first-semester seminary student, my mind and heart were full of expectation, especially concerning where the Lord may take me in the ministry. Having watched and seen so many “celebrity” pastors, I remember thinking and hoping that maybe God would direct my ministry to such a height someday. Yet as our pastor, Wes Hamilton, preached and referenced this quote, I remember my heart being shaken, and my direction in ministry changed.
My assumption up to that point—and if we are honest, the assumption of so many of us—was that God was always going to call me to bigger and better places. The small ministry that I had before seminary was in my past. Greatness, notoriety, and prosperity were surely on the horizon. Yet the truth is, this is the way of the flesh and not the way of Christ!
Jesus prescribes the position of the heart that must prevail in the life of His disciples in Luke 14:7-11:
And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus’ prescription to those who heard this parable was simple: take the lowest position and trust the Host to put you in the right position. What Jesus teaches in this parable is echoed throughout the New Testament. In Matthew, Luke, and John, we have the example of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. In Philippians 2, the Apostle Paul reminds his readers to have the same mind in them as Christ Jesus, who took on flesh, took up the cross, and humbled Himself to the point of death. In 1 Peter 5, Peter encourages his readers, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time” (v. 6). Schaeffer explains the prescription of this passage: “This is the way of the Christian: he should choose the lesser place until God extrudes him into a position of more responsibility.”
Living out the prescription of Jesus and the message of the New Testament requires us to always seek faithfulness over a following. When we embrace New Testament humility, we are not promised a massive following. When we embrace New Testament humility, there is no promise that money will flow in. When we embrace New Testament humility, there is no assurance that any man will ever see us as a success. BUT there is the promise that we will be exalted by the Lord. Choosing the lesser path may never lead to the praises of man, but it will lead to the approval of our Savior.
Additionally, living out the prescription of Jesus requires us to always seek out piety over a platform. As disciples of Jesus, our aim should be to grow in our devotion to Jesus and not to grow our ministry reach. For many of us (myself included), false humility pervades our social media channels. We use false gratitude and fancy phrases that are posted, pictured, and planted all over our social media feeds in hopes that our reach will grow farther and our notoriety will increase. These false actions often take our attention away from faithfully following Jesus. We are tempted to grow our own following instead of more faithfully following Him.
Since the way of Christ is so clear, we should do two things. First, we should follow Christ’s call, no matter the span of our influence. Second, we should work as servants and not seek celebrity status. Schaeffer says,
Jesus commands Christians to seek consciously the lowest room. All of us—pastors, teachers, professional religious workers and nonprofessional included—are tempted to say, “I will take the larger place because it will give me more influence for Jesus Christ.” Both individual Christians and Christian organizations fall prey to the temptation of rationalizing this way as we build bigger and bigger empires. But according to the Scripture this is back-wards: we should consciously take the lowest place unless the Lord Himself extrudes us into a greater one.
For each of us, the command of Christ is to be humble and to trust Him alone for where we are headed. May we always seek the lower place so that we can give Christ the highest praise with our lives.
 Francis A. Schaeffer, No Little People (Introduction by Udo Middelmann) (p. 25). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., 29.
The most important time to be at church is when you don’t feel like it.
A few months ago, I talked with three Christians about this—two struggling with depression, and a third who just went through a tough break-up—who’ve stopped gathering with God’s people during a difficult season. Whether for weeks or months, all three have decided to stop going to church.
One said it would be unsatisfying, that there just isn’t a sense of connection. Another said it would be awkward, because they don’t want to see their ex. The last said it would be unhelpful, because they have no desire to be there anymore.
I’m not here to minimize their burdens or condemn them for feeling the way they do. I’m not writing to them or about them. I’m just writing to every Christian who feels the way they’re feeling, who feels (as I have before) like gathering with God’s people will be unsatisfying, unhelpful, or just plain awkward.
I’m writing to say something I said to all three of my friends at some point in our conversations: The most important time to be at church is when you don’t feel like it.Remember, the church is not a building
Yes, I know the church is a people, not a place. The church is a body, not a building. The church is something Christians are, not just somewhere Christians go. Yes, I also know the church is a family that should meet and study and eat and fellowship and pray and serve throughout the week, not just on Sunday. I know these things, and if you’ve walked with God for a while, you do too.
But I also know the church is marked, known, and enlivened by its regular, rhythmic, ordered gatherings (Heb. 10:24–25). A body that’s never together is more like a prosthetics warehouse, and a family that never has family dinners or outings or reunions won’t be a healthy family, if any family at all.
Sure, you could listen to some praise music and an online sermon, but there won’t be any personalized one-anothering, there won’t be any face-to-face fellowship, and there won’t be any bread and wine. Sure, you could read the Bible and pray on your own, but you won’t hear the voice of your own shepherd teaching and comforting and correcting you. Yes, you could just attend another church for a while because yours has grown unsatisfying, but that’s not treating your church like much of a covenant community.
Covenants are made for the hard times, not the good times. In the good times, we don’t need covenants, because we can get by on feelings alone. But covenant communities hold us up when we’re faltering. They encourage us when we’re weary and wake us when we’re slumbering. They draw us out of ourselves and invite us back to the garden of Christian community, where we grow.Church is not all about you
I get it. The worship team didn’t pull their song selections from your Spotify playlist; the pastor didn’t have the time and resources to craft a mesmerizing sermon with a team of presidential speechwriters; the membership may not have the perfect combination of older saints to mentor you, younger saints to energize you, mature saints to counsel you, hospitable saints to host you, and outgoing saints to pursue you.
But I know another thing: If your church believes the Bible and preaches the gospel and practices the ordinances and serves one another, then your church has saints, and those saints are your brothers and sisters, your fathers and mothers, your weary fellow pilgrims walking the same wilderness you are—away from Egypt, surrounded by pillars of cloud and fire, with eyes set on the promised land.
Which is to say: This isn’t really about you.
And those people you wish would pursue you and care for you and reach out to you need you to do the same (Gal. 6:9–10). That pastor you wish were a better preacher is probably praying this morning that you’d be a good listener (Mark 4:3–8, 14–20; James 1:22–25). Those people whose spiritual gifts you desperately need also desperately need your spiritual gifts (Eph. 4:15–16). Those people whose fellowship you find dissatisfying or unhelpful or just plain awkward don’t need your criticism but your gospel partnership (Phil. 4:2–3).
And you can’t do any of these things if you’re not present.Don’t miss a vital means of grace
At all times and in all places, the gathering of the saints is a means of grace established by God for edifying his people. Christians gather to worship not because it might be helpful if all the stars align, or if our leaders plan the service just right, or if everyone smiles at us with the perfect degree of sincerity and handles the small talk seamlessly and engages us with just the right depth of conversation that’s neither too personal nor too shallow.
We gather because the God we’re worshiping has instituted our gathering as a main way he matures and strengthens and comforts us. It’s not just when the songs or prayers or sermons or Sunday school classes touch our souls right where we need to be touched. We meet because God builds up his people through our meeting every time, in every place, without fail, no matter how we feel. Like rain in the fields, it’s how our gatherings work.Pray, then go
So I know you may not feel like it on Sunday morning. You may not feel like it for a while. But I’m asking you to trust God, ask for grace, and go.
Go, because the church gathers every Sunday to remember the death of Jesus for our sins and the resurrection of Christ from the dead, and that’s precisely what we all need to remember and celebrate, regardless of what else is going on in our lives.
Go, because the stone trapping you in the cave of depression can be rolled away in a night, and once God does it, no Roman soldier or Jewish priest can stop him. Go, because you’re gathering to anticipate a greater marriage than the one you hoped would happen later this year. Go, not because your trials aren’t real, but because that tabled bread and wine represents the crucifixion of the worst sins you could ever commit and the worst realities you’ve ever experienced.
Go, and in your going, grow. Go, and in your going, serve. Go, and in your going, let God pick up the pieces of your heart and stitch together the kind of mosaic that only gets fully crafted when saints stay committed to God’s long-term building project, when they speak the truth to one another in love (Eph. 4:15–16).
The most important time to be at church is when you don’t feel like it. So please, brothers and sisters: Go.
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