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In Numbers 21, we’re told that many of God’s people were bitten by snakes and died on their wilderness journey. As they cried out to God, Moses prayed, and God directed him to fashion a bronze snake on a long pole. He was instructed that anyone who had been bitten should look at the bronze snake—and they would be healed. They were not to focus on their wounds, although it really was a life-threatening situation.

It’s interesting that Moses didn’t say, “Oh, it’s all your imagination. Don’t worry about it. It will go away.” No, he knew people were literally dying. Those who focused on their wounds died. But those who looked upon the bronze snake, high and lifted up, were healed and lived.

Like the Israelites in the desert, we must set our gaze directly on Christ. Admittedly, persistent struggles with sexual temptation and sin can continuously derail us. We can too easily lose hope and give up. This is where the evil one wants us.

But we must believe that Jesus doesn’t sit idly by in heaven; he is with us! He is the conqueror of sin and death—even in the battles for holiness that rage in our own hearts. When your conscience plagues you the most, or when you are in the most dire distress, you must grasp Christ in faith. It is in that moment that faith sees Jesus, the one who obeyed, suffered, died, and rose again—and he did that for our sake! Hebrews 12:1-2 is one of the most astonishing verses in all of Scripture: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (ESV).

What was the joy that Jesus looked forward to, so much so that he endured unbelievable suffering? It was you; it was his people whom he lived and died for, men and women being renewed by his grace and who one day will be fully restored, perfect in every way.

No matter what the distress and pain you are suffering through at this moment, that is something to look toward!

Where are the snakes in your life right now—those things that seem to threaten to rob you of life, of hope, of joy? What are the situations, circumstances, and struggles that keep you defeated? How are you dealing with them? Where are your eyes turned to in those moments?

Updated 5.10.2017

Life in this world is often brutally painful. Our bodies break down as we contend with disease, injury, and death. Our relationships can be a source of great blessing, but also crushingly painful. Even the physical world lashes out with hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc. And, to top it all off, we are often our own worst enemies—making repeated foolish decisions that lead to guilt, shame, and damaging ripple effects in our relationships, workplaces, etc.

When you look at our world—and your own heart—do you believe chaos is reigning? Do you believe that God is present in the midst of you most painful trials? Consider the encouragement found in Hebrews 12:1-3:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (ESV).

The final thing I want to consider in this passage is the declaration that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father. This means he is exalted, in the place of highest honor. And it is significant that he is “seated.” This is the posture of a victorious king—seated on his throne, ruling over all, his enemies vanquished, his task complete. Earlier, Hebrews urges us to see that Jesus is ruling over the universe. He upholds everything by the word of his power (1:3). Everything has been made subject to him. Nothing is outside of his control. This is the truth, even though we do not yet see it (2:8).

The last point is crucial. Living the Christian life requires faith because there is still so much brokenness in the world and in our lives. The kingdom of Christ is advancing, but there is a long way to go and much that will not be set right until the new heavens and earth. But in the face of all the existing ills, Scripture urges us to believe that nothing in this broken world is random. Chaos is not reigning—Jesus is, and, having reconciled us to the Father through his sacrifice, he will accomplish his ultimate purpose of preparing us to be with him forever. He is committed to seeing us through to the end of this race. Remember: He is the perfecter of our faith.

Sadly, this race is grueling and filled with snares. We are called to perseverance because the race is hard. But Jesus is lifted up to encourage us. This passage teaches us that as we fix our gaze on him, considering what he endured out of love for us, we are strengthened in our weariness, emboldened rather than disheartened. Verse 4 challenges that we haven’t suffered to the point of shedding blood. The contrast, of course, is that Jesus was slaughtered for us.

So where do we find the power to live differently? How do we cast aside the weight that slows us down and the sin that trips up our feet? By faith, clinging to the hope that Jesus finished the race and is now committed to seeing us through. He is not still running ahead;he has finished. He is now seated, his smiling face, filled with an expression of love, is turned toward us, urging us on at every step.

Hebrews 12 goes on to talk about the painful reality that God disciplines his children. Our trials and temptations don’t reveal his absence, but point, albeit painfully, to his presence with us, the proof that we are his adopted children.

Why do we need to cast these things aside? They are robbing us of joy and slowing us down on our journey home. They make our already arduous path all the more difficult. We are pointed to Jesus’ suffering so that we will know that our suffering matters too. Just as Jesus is lifted up and exalted, ruling over the universe, so there is glory and honor awaiting us as we suffer through the brokenness of this fallen world. We are called to “count it all joy” in the face of trials because God is using them to produce steadfastness and to ultimately “perfect” us (James 1:2-4). Trials turn up the heat in our lives, purifying our faith, of greater worth than gold (1 Peter 1:3-9).

Do you believe that God’s purposes are being accomplished in the midst of your most painful trials? What does it mean to you that Jesus has suffered first and is now victoriously seated, and awaiting your arrival? May God give us the grace to cling to his promises in the midst of the pain of life and to see with eyes of faith the great cloud of witnesses who have survived the race and cheer us on. Above all, may we look to Jesus sitting on the throne, exalted, reigning, and overflowing with love and joy and delight in us.

Updated 5.10.2017

Happy Friday!

Did you fast last weekend? How did it go? I fasted from checking and writing email. Why?

When I’m feeling lonely or disconnected from people, going online to check my email or checking my phone for text messages is what I do to have my heart soothed and comforted (that is, if I hear from anyone!). But when I reflect on why I do this so frequently, I realize that I am not going to the Lord for my comfort.

When I turn from the Lord to something else in order to pursue life, comfort, security, value, feeling loved etc., this is when I have fed the temptation rather than starved it. I’ve found that a common thread in the hearts of women who become ensnared in sexual sin of any type is the emotional pain they feel. That pain must be soothed, denied, or escaped from at any cost, and it is through sexual encounters, a fantasy life, or emotionally entangled friendships that the pain is soothed and calmed—for a time.

But when we move in that direction, it comes at a cost. What we feed on grows. What is growing in our lives becomes the focus of our lives. Will that focus lead to Christ-likeness or to a deeper enslavement to my sin patterns?

One initial step for you to grow in Christ-likeness, rather than in patterns of sin, is to think about the following:

1)     Can you name the desires in your heart that seem to rule over you? Desires can be holy or evil, depending on the motive of our heart.

2)     Can you identify the paths you walk in order to soothe those desires? This connects with the ‘fasting’ exercise I mentioned in my last blog post. What we can’t give up for a week, a day, or an hour may be something we are using as a way to feed and nurture sinful desires.

3)     Take one passage of Scripture and reflect daily on the passage that you have chosen, meditating on the qualities listed that you want to see growing in your life. Let me suggest one of three: 2 Peter 1:1-11, Galatians 5: 22-26, or Colossians 3:1-12, as these are passages that describe qualities of Christ-likeness. Focus on Christ first, not your sin that must be done away with.

4)     Find a ‘safe’ person to pray for you and help you think through how you can develop ongoing habits that will nurture your soul in Jesus and starve out your flesh. A safe person is someone who consistently lives a life of following Christ, is honest about their own struggles, is self-controlled with her mouth, can listen with wisdom, and can speak words of grace and truth back to you.

These are just some initial steps to take. Are there other things you’ve found in your spiritual journey that have been helpful as you’ve sought to turn from temptation?

Updated 5.10.2017

If we want to ‘starve out’ our specific areas of temptation to sin, let’s not miss the thing we so obviously need: to know what they are! What immediately comes to your mind: Do you obsessively hop onto Facebook to stalk certain people? Do you casually cruise over to websites that are “borderline” pornographic?

Do you pop into chat rooms to “just” talk, but you know you’ll soon be exchanging sexually graphic messages? What books, music, and movies arouse your senses in ways that lead you to sexual arousal and self-gratification? Whose verbal affection and/or touch, whether guy or girl, is something that you feel you can’t live without?

Sisters, the above scenarios (and hundreds of other specific things that may have come to your mind) really aren’t the main things that need to be starved out. They are the fruit or manifestations of deeper, more profound heart-temptations that are within you. To starve them out, you must go below the surface sin struggle and get delve into what you are craving. Are you desperately lonely and seeking companionship? Are you sad and brokenhearted and seeking to feel comfort—even just a drop of attention or affection from someone? Are you bored with life and just want to feel alive? All of these are very specific areas of pain and struggle and longing for which Jesus must be your covering, your comfort, your heart’s clothing.

Here are some diagnostic questions to ask of your heart:

1).        What activities, people, habits, or commitments are a part of your daily life? Some of mine are my cell phone and texting, my computer and checking email, my French Press and coffee.

2).        How long can you go without any of the things you just listed?

3).        What kinds of feelings surface when you “fast” from these things for an hour? Half a day? An entire day?

The feelings that surface when we fast from any regular or habitual activity (anything that we feel we “have to do” and suspect may have a hold on us) will help us to discover root causes to our temptations and sin struggles. Try to fast this weekend from one thing you came up with in question #1, and jot down the feelings that surface during that fasting period. I’m going to fast from checking and writing email, so I’ll join in on this.

What will you fast from? What do you think your heart will display? What will you learn about the heart within you that drives what you do?

Updated 5.10.2017

Today, I want to share more thoughts on living in light of Romans 13:14, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (ESV).

If we’re going to be women who resist the pull of our flesh towards sexual temptations and relational idols, and grow as daughters of God who make no provision to invite temptation to lurk nearby, we must understand the two commands in this verse.

First, we are to daily clothe ourselves in Jesus, rather than any other thing. Being “clothed in Jesus” is another way of saying that we are to live and respond to life by faith and in surrender to the amazing truth that Jesus lives within us. We are his in regards to all areas of life. We are not our own and have no right to say, “Jesus, I love and worship you, but in this area, I’ll take care of things myself.”

These areas in which we seek to be queen of our universe are generally linked to our fleshly desires, such as being emotionally or sexually comforted, whatever the cost. Or being #1 in someone’s thoughts or affections, regardless of how unhealthy the attachment to that woman or man might be. Or pursuing (via pornography and other venues of media) a consistent stream of material that fuels our self-constructed worlds of romantic and sensual fantasy.

Later this week, I want to explore help us discover a) our specific areas of fleshly pull and b) the specific wisdom Jesus has for each of us in taking steps toward cutting off the fuel supply to our lusts.

For reflection:

  • Jesus conversed with, pursued, spent time with, loved, healed, and forgave sin-ensnared women throughout his ministry while on earth. Often the church has been silent about the sexual sin patterns with which women are struggling. Read and reflect upon Psalm 139; think of it as a prayer you might say to Jesus as you seek help and freedom from your addictions to people’s attention and affection, to your five-, ten-, or twenty-five-year masturbation pattern, to your inability to stop having sex with others. Jesus knows you in these struggles and loves you so much that he wants to free you from them.
Updated 5.10.2017

As I enjoyed the days of Thanksgiving holiday, a friend and I committed to help each other with individual health goals for December. (Why wait till January 1 for resolutions, right?) For starters, I’ll try to hit the elliptical at the gym twice a week, and also try one more time to be diligent about drinking lots of water. No time like now to get a fresh start!

But ohhh—the pull of our fleshly desires just doesn’t die easily. They don’t just go away, do they sisters? They need to be starved, slowly slain, dried out. You choose the adverbial phrase that resonates most deeply with your own experience as a woman seeking to live and relate in holy ways.

Romans 13:14 is a verse that speaks to this ‘holy starvation’ process that we’re all called to as followers of Christ. It says, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (ESV). Somehow, putting on the clothes—that is, the character—of Jesus Christ while simultaneously learning how to starve our unique patterns of temptation and selfish desire is the spiritual combination that leads to the changes God wants to make in our lives.

And unlike typical January resolutions, which tend to be self-focused, the changes God is making in us leads to a growing desire and ability to love other, which is the larger context of chapter 13: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (v. 8).

I’ll explore these thoughts a bit more in my next posts.

For reflection:

  • Read these passages to learn more of what it means to be “clothed” in Jesus: Colossians 3:12-13; Galatians 3:26-28.
  • What desires of the flesh keep you from loving people? Don’t think just in terms of big sin but of everyday, little ways that you make provision for selfishness in your life.
Updated 5.10.2017

This article first appeared as a religion column in the Philadelphia Daily News with the title “Churches that don’t acknowledge homosexuality build a difficult barrier.”

Twelve years ago, Oprah Winfrey interviewed J.L. King about his book, On The Down Low, which documented multitudes of black men who regularly engaged in sex with men.

Often husbands and fathers, they do not identify as “gay,” but they do live secret and radically disjointed double lives. In fact, King pointed out that African-American churches are “unrealistic about the number of men leading double lives.”

Recent accusations about a well-known Southern minister in a mega-church of African Americans have brought this discussion back into the limelight. King cites blatant hypocrisy: ministers who condemn homosexuality from the pulpit, then have sex with men in the pews.

His concern is that the church all too often condemns homosexuality rather than admits its presence among members and leadership. The picture King paints is that church leaders often mistakenly convey the message that this is something that happens “out there” and not “in here.”

Yet anyone can struggle with same-sex attractions and homosexuality, regardless of race and ethnicity. It is part of the human predicament. In a sense, it’s a subcategory of the major human dilemma. What is at the essence of the greater human dilemma? Just this: the Bible says that we react to confusion, life’s circumstances, hurts, disappointments, and pain by developing plans and strategies to make life work apart from God. We all develop approaches to life that say to others around us, and to God as well, “I have a plan for my life—don’t you get in my way.”

This is the nature of sin, which extends to what we do with our hearts and bodies, sexually speaking. How we handle sex reveals what we believe about God. Our use or misuse of sex always reveals whether we’re living lives of submission to God or rebellion. For all of us, then, one of the key questions of life is whether we’re willing to call God “boss” and let him meet our needs his way.

The white church is also hesitant to admit that its members experience these kinds of problems, as well as the propensity to live double lives of hypocrisy. Yet homosexuality seems to be a more hidden reality in African-American, Asian, and Latino churches. Perhaps the white church has just lost its sense of shame; that is, it has lost an awareness that something is terribly wrong, while African-American and other ethnic churches still hold on to some appearance that, biblically speaking, same-sex attraction is not a good thing to be open about or celebrated.

I don’t know how many black churches have become pro-homosexual. This is not a bad thing, but avoiding the real struggles that people experience is.

Keeping silent about these struggles puts those in the African-American church in a bind. The barriers to admitting the truth and seeking help consequently remain very high. These barriers must be broken down in the African-American church. This can happen only when these real heart issues and problems are discussed openly and honestly. That’s also when people who struggle with same-sex attractions might be encouraged to talk about it sooner so that they can understand how much God cares and longs to meet them in the midst of their secret struggles. The pop psychologist Dr. Phil is right on here. He often states boldly and frequently on his TV show, “What can’t be admitted can’t be changed.”

A passage from the Bible, I Thessalonians: 4:3-5, states, “This is God’s will, that you abstain from sexual immorality; and that each of you learn how to control his own body in holiness and honor; not in lustful passion. . . . ”

Admittedly, these are hard words to take in, especially in our ‘sex is my own business’ culture. But they are also life-giving words that transcend race and ethnicity. In this sense, God’s words to us are truly multicultural in nature.

Updated 5.10.2017

“Be to me a rock of refuge to which I may continually come” (Psalm 71:3, ESV).

Psalm 71 might seem like an unusual (or unexpected, at the least!) place to go for a Christmas-week meditation. “Come on Ellen…you must at least go to Psalm 22, Luke 1-2, or Isaiah 9!”

Well, isn’t it great how our Lord, the Wonderful Counselor, opens up his Word to us in new ways? I’ve gone to Psalm 71 a lot in recent years for the insight it gives on how our mouths are to be used. Being a woman who vocationally depends on her mouth, words, and speech, this psalm is full of the truth I need daily.

Recently, however, some new thoughts have emerged from this psalm that I want to share with you this Christmas week.

“…to which I may continually come.”

‘Continually’ is a solid word, indicating ‘always, habitual, lifestyle.’ We continually come to Jesus because he is continually available. He is always present. He is an “all the day,” “at all time” Savior, Redeemer, Rescuer, and Lord. Always. This is what I’m calling his 24/7-ness, which invites us to a lifestyle of responsiveness to him. David lives, speaks, and hopes from a 24/7 responsiveness to the Lord.

David had the freedom of heart and faith to express his 24/7 neediness of God, to God, but David didn’t stop there. This song is also full of expressions of living continually before the Lord in hope, in worship, in trust! This is where Christmas leads us: the Word made flesh and living always with us. This is Luke 1-2 and is absolutely Psalm 22’s Messiah. This is life in a fallen world that is being redeemed and in which the Lord Jesus is present to us through his Spirit.

Where have you been running to continually? Where, what, or who is your “rock of refuge,” especially in the holiday season, which for many is so challenging, painful, lonely, disappointing? Today, be reminded of Psalm 71:3’s Christmas hope for you: Jesus is continually available for you in temptation, in struggle, in the ‘groaning’ you may be experiencing in the battle against sin. He came so that now, by faith, we experience him coming to us in our weaknesses and in our worship, as we believe upon him to be our Rock of Refuge.

Updated 5.19.2017

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (Isaiah 55:1-2, ESV).

Rich “food,” or “fare,” should be capitalized here, as this fare, this banquet table is Jesus! When we have the taste buds of our hearts re-oriented and set on what is true, on what is sweet and good, we are led to Jesus, the table in the presence of enemies (Psalm 23:5). Jesus comes to us in our disordered desires and confused understandings and gives us himself.

We at Harvest USA have the amazing opportunity to enter into conversations with people week after week and to experience Jesus bringing peace where turmoil has been reigning. He reigns in thirsty hearts who come to him in the midst of deserts, of unholy attachments and behaviors that have left them unsatisfied and experiencing a “continual lust for more” (Ephesians 4:19, NIV).

This Christmas season, you may be invited to many types of tables…to snack, graze, feast. If sexual sin, emotional idolatry, addictive and life-dominating menus are what you’ve been ordering from, Jesus invites you to come to him to delight in the richest of fare. There is hope for you to taste and see and know that he is good!

Updated 5.11.2017

So let’s continue on with some more thoughts on people and food addictions. What are we to do if we are compulsive eaters? If we run constantly to food, snacks, bingeing on Boston creme-filled donuts, potato chips, or super chunk peanut butter chocolate ice cream, or whatever foods are most irresistible to you?

Well, first of all, we need to realize that what we’re hungering for really isn’t those items. Those goodies do taste good, and they can be enjoyed in a way that doesn’t numb but delights you…but only if you know what your heart is really hungering for.

Psalm 34: 8 says that we are to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (ESV); we are blessed when we take refuge in him. We might also say we are blessed when we feast upon him through relationship with Jesus, through prayer, through trusting and obeying him, through surrendering our lives. Having him be my banquet table allows me to enjoy and delight in the gifts that are presented to me.

This is so similar to people addiction or the ‘worship’ of people. A few posts ago, I wrote about how women (and men too) can be enthralled with each other, or seek to ‘feast’ upon each other through emotional connecting, nurture, affection, etc. This fixation really isn’t about a certain woman or person or people in general. Like food, it’s about our souls seeking what they were created for: satisfaction. But true satisfaction can only be found through the only One who fills us, the Bread of Life, Jesus. This is great news for us and gives us so much hope, even if we are people or food addicts!

What things or people are you seeking to find satisfaction in, apart from Jesus? How have you tasted and seen that the Lord is good, even more than your ‘addictions’ and temporary satisfactions?

Updated 5.12.2017

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