Shame-filled tears streamed down my face as I said to a friend, “I can’t go to God again! This is my own fault.” I described a scene that, in my mind, perfectly captured my relationship with Christ. It’s now infamously known as “the sledgehammer illustration.”

It went like this: God is the owner of a luxury car, and each morning I’d wake up and take a sledgehammer to the windshield of God’s car. Then, at the end of the day, I’d go to him crying for forgiveness. God would forgive my sins and comfort me. And the very next day, I’d walk right back up to his car, sledgehammer in hand, and smash his windshield again.

Could God have compassion on me, I thought, when I just kept smashing his windshield and asking for forgiveness? The pain and ruin I was experiencing were undoubtedly my own fault. My friend looked at me and said, “Caitlin, God is a Savior. That’s just what you need—a saving, rescuing God.”

Could God have compassion on me, I thought, when I just kept smashing his windshield and asking for forgiveness?

Have you ever felt like I did? Have you ever felt as though God didn’t want to hear from you again? Have you imagined that God is withholding his help and care because your suffering is a direct result of your sins, failures, and choices?

Perhaps you’ve taken a costly step of obedience and confessed your infidelity to your spouse, and now you’re engulfed in the destructive consequences. Or maybe you’re in a season of loneliness and grief because you walked away from an unholy relationship you never should have pursued in the first place.

Does God Care When We Have No One to Blame But Ourselves?

In Psalm 107 we’re introduced to four vignettes, each describing someone in a dire situation who cries out to the Lord for help. I recommend you read the entire psalm, but for our purposes we’ll focus on the third vignette found in vv. 17–22:

                 Some were fools through their sinful ways,

and because of their iniquities suffered affliction;

                 they loathed any kind of food,

and they drew near to the gates of death.

                 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,

and he delivered them from their distress.

                 He sent out his word and healed them,

and delivered them from their destruction.

                 Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,

for his wondrous works to the children of man!

                 And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving,

and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!

We’re introduced to a fool who, because of his iniquities, suffered distress and needed deliverance from his own destruction. Does that sound familiar?

But this is truly good news for the ruined sinner. Can you see why? God gives the same healing and deliverance to the foolish sinner (vv. 19–20) as he gives to the other case studies presented in Psalm 107—he doesn’t measure out his help based on our merit.

This Psalm puts the character of our Savior on beautiful display. Is God a compassionate Savior? Psalm 107 gives a resounding YES!

The hymn Come Ye Sinners Poor and Needy beautifully summarizes this idea:

Let not conscience make you linger,

nor of fitness fondly dream;

all the fitness he requireth

is to feel your need of him.

Come, ye weary, heavy laden,

lost and ruined by the fall;

if you tarry till you’re better,

you will never come at all.

What Am I Really Believing?

Do you find yourself mired in the anguish of your sin’s fallout?  Below are some diagnostic questions for you. Perhaps you can talk through these questions with a pastor, counselor, or trusted friend.

  • Is there a part of you that wants to bring a work to your repentance (a changed attitude, a new resolve, a step in the right direction) to merit God’s compassion?
  • If you believe God is against you because of your sin, what, in your mind, would cause him to be for you in the future?
  • What are you believing about God that’s keeping you from going to him in confession and repentance today?
  • Do you believe God warms or cools his compassion toward you based on your behavior? Why or why not?

Jesus: The Rescuer

Do you feel your need for Jesus amid the consequences of your sin? Are you weary and heavy-laden from your own destructive decisions? Do you need comfort in the firestorm created by your own failure? Oh ruined sinner, look to Christ! Cry out to him in every trouble, even if the trouble is your own doing—look to Jesus.

We bring nothing. Let that free you to bend the knee before your Rescuer. Humbly receive his comfort and help in the midst of the affliction you face from your own sinful choices.

Our hearts naturally push against the humility and dependence this requires. We bring nothing. Let that free you to bend the knee before your Rescuer. Humbly receive his comfort and help in the midst of the affliction you face from your own sinful choices—he is faithful and just to forgive and cleanse us (1 John 1:9), and his mercies are new every morning (Lam. 3:22–23).

Written by a former ministry recipient of Harvest USA

Have you ever been blindsided by pain from the past erupting unexpectedly in present circumstances? It can be disconcerting and even terrifying. I’d like to share my experience of this in the hope that it will help others walking out faith and obedience regarding not only sexual sin, but also the wreckage of painful relationships.

I’m an older woman and thought I’d worked through my issues from the past, including a difficult relationship with my mom. I love the Lord, have sought to be immersed in the truth of God’s Word, and have also benefited greatly from counseling as well as Harvest USA’s discipleship for women. I experienced same-sex attraction (SSA) in my teen years and early adulthood but, by God’s grace, those desires dissipated profoundly. I’m thankful for a kind and godly husband who has journeyed with me. Amid these blessings, a few years ago an incident occurred that brought me to my knees with a sense of desperation to understand what had been triggered that I was seeking to escape.

The Trigger and the Memory

There had been a change in leadership at the job I’d held for many years. During supervision with my new boss, she didn’t want to hear a word I had to say. Things were tense. After the meeting, I found myself wanting to run out of the building. I thought, “Maybe if I go pick up coffee every couple of hours, I’ll be alright; I just need to get out of here!” This familiar sensation is what I’d come to understand as a fight or flight response, common in those who’ve experienced trauma. Memories, sensations, locations, or even ways of relating to others that are like the original traumatic experience appear in the present day, causing a physiological response from the autonomic nervous system.

After a couple of days feeling out of control, I came before my heavenly Father on my knees in prayer, crying out, “What is wrong with me?” Exhausted, I rested in his presence. I believe the Lord helped me connect a childhood occurrence with its emotion and feelings. These feelings were the same as those I felt in that office with my boss.

Memories, sensations, locations, or even ways of relating to others that are like the original traumatic experience appear in the present day, causing a physiological response from the autonomic nervous system.

When I was a very young child, I remember standing by my mother’s chair in the living room wanting and asking for her attention, but she would ignore me with a mean and callous look on her face. I felt rejected—as if my personhood was not even worth being recognized. I hadn’t felt those feelings again until I was in that office decades later, with my boss who didn’t want to hear a word I said.

Significantly, my lack of connection with my mother—something I always wanted—was a key component when it comes to my disordered desire for emotional and physical intimacy with older women. I realize now that my mother was greatly troubled and had mental illness. I’ve forgiven her. I thought I’d fully worked through this loss until this triggering event.

What should we do when past trauma is triggered?

What the enemy intends to use for evil, God desires to use for our good (Gen. 50:20). I’ve found the following action steps helpful, and I hope they help you, too. As we respond in healthy ways and adjust our perception to align with the truth of Scripture, God meets us and continues his work in us—making us resilient and spiritually mature.

  • It’s important to realize something is wrong. This sounds simple, right? However, sometimes we don’t take time to slow down enough to sort through our feelings. We need to identify what is going on in our hearts to work through our problems and pain. In Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores, Diane Langberg states:

Pain is the only protest in the human constitution that something is wrong. It is the only thing that raises its voice against existing abuses. If you jump to silence pain, you will fail to find the wound. Pain is the Martin Luther of the human framework; it plasters the wall of the city with the announcement that something is wrong.

  • Take time to process what has happened. Like the grieving process, we need time to work through our loss. Many people find journaling helpful. This is an especially important step that must not be overlooked to work through the triggering event and how it relates to past trauma. Some will benefit from talking it out with a trusted friend or counselor to be guided through processing deep pain safely.
  • Identify feelings like anxiety, anger, and fear and the “whys” behind each. Also, challenge corresponding thoughts that do not line up with what God says about you, replacing lies with the truth of God’s Word. Knowing who you are in Christ is a firm foundation on which to stand. Emotions can be powerful! When a past trauma has been triggered, it’s helpful to remind yourself that the past event is in the past and that you are safe in the here and now. 
  • Seek help. Your symptoms (and those strong feelings and emotions) should settle down over time. If you are continuing to struggle—having difficulty with your daily tasks, falling into old negative patterns, experiencing flashbacks or nightmares—help from a counselor may be warranted.
  • Remember you’re not alone. Your heavenly Father is with you and will uphold you (Is. 43:1–3). He will never fail you! He longs to comfort you (2 Cor. 1:3). He desires that we pour out our heart to him, and yes, he will meet us in our most challenging times (Heb. 4:16). He is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18).
  • Don’t isolate. A natural reaction to trauma is to withdraw from others. However, it’s extremely important to maintain relationships and connections to your church community. When you’re hurting and feeling delicate, allow God’s people to love you. This doesn’t mean you share your struggle in every large group setting. But choose to lean on trusted friends who are spiritually mature and have modeled a compassionate heart toward sufferers. In the hard things of life, I have never felt so loved as to be surrounded by my brothers and sisters who care for me with the love of Jesus.
  • Self-care. Take care of yourself by getting enough sleep, eating right, and getting enough exercise. These things are known to be helpful, increasing our ability to cope with the stressors of life. If you are not feeling very motivated, take small steps in a positive direction and build on those steps as you begin to feel better. And don’t neglect to do things you enjoy!

As we respond in healthy ways and adjust our perception to align with the truth of Scripture, God meets us and continues his work in us—making us resilient and spiritually mature.

Know that God has good plans for you (Jer. 29:11) and desires to use you in the lives of others (Eph. 2:10). Look to Jesus always (Heb. 12:2–3) and run to him when your past pain is triggered—he is our help and our eternal healing.

I love Christmas. Glowing tree lights illuminate sentimental ornaments, candlelight glints on red berries—everything gauche and shiny and celebratory. Christmas books adorn the coffee table. My long-suffering family endures endless repetitions of “Carols from St. Paul’s Cathedral.” There’s meal planning, card sending, and gifts.

This—receiving gifts—is where my family’s Christmas celebration can get derailed. Anyone else? We can begin to believe we should get precisely what we want. For all its convenience, the Amazon wishlist can become a petty tyrant, serving our bullying demands. This is self-focused—greedy rather than grateful. When it comes to Christmas presents, we can spot that.

But what about how we respond to the life God gives? We all live in a reality that, in some way, is not what we wanted. I never expected my husband to face young-onset Parkinson’s Disease, yet he does. I don’t want to see him growing weaker, yet he is. You may not want to struggle against sexual sin or singleness or discontentment. And family gatherings can make the season extra difficult, highlighting estranged relationships, grief, or loneliness. In all this heartache, do we see God as the tight-fisted arbiter of our life’s wish list—holding out on the good stuff? Or will we trust our heavenly Father?

God’s plans are better than our wish list life, even when we can’t see it and don’t feel it. He is good. He’s able and willing to do us good. Whether or not we believe this truth impacts everything.

Four realities about God’s providence nourish our belief:

1. God Works for Our Good

You may be happily married or aching with loneliness, struggling to care for a gender-dysphoric child or enjoying family life, daily fighting sexual sin or living victoriously. Whether you’re facing the best or the worst things, God’s Word says, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, my emphasis).

It’s hard to think of trials as gifts in God’s hands. And it’s true that evil itself is evil. Yet God sovereignly works even evil things for good to his children. In this light, we can receive all things as gifts tailored to us from the wise hand of our good Father.

What a mystery and miracle. In his providence, God fits our life’s circumstances to purpose, for us.

“Do not mistake me,” writes Puritan Thomas Watson. “I do not say that of their own nature the worst things are good, for they are a fruit of the curse; but though they are naturally evil, yet the wise, overruling hand of God disposing and sanctifying them, they are morally good” (21). Joseph answered his brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20a).

What a mystery and miracle. In his providence, God fits our life’s circumstances to purpose, for us. Whatever the pain, your wise Father is using that very thing for good in your life. As William Cowper wrote,

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

2. God Gives What Is Necessary

Our Father also takes the worst things and uses them as medicine to refine us. “Out of the most poisonous drugs God extracts our salvation,” writes Watson (22). This is not an optional treatment. It’s spiritual chemotherapy—a violent cure, without which we die.

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 1:6–7, my emphasis)

Our framework for this hard truth is the reality that our greatest need is spiritual. Apart from salvation in Christ, we are eternally lost. The best gifts of this world will vanish like mist in the morning sun. But Christ, and him growing ever dearer to us, is everything we need for all eternity. Truly! Anything that helps us let go of this passing world and cling to the One who lasts forever is essential medicine.

3. God Gives Abundantly

But this medicine is not only bitter. It also carries the sweetness of union with Christ and fellowship with the Holy Spirit. Our Father is merciful and generous—he gives us himself.

He provides all we need each moment to walk through this vale of tears, and he is himself our eternal, undefiled, unfading inheritance (1 Pet. 1:3–5). Fernando Ortega’s song “Give Me Jesus” says, “You can have all this world, but give me Jesus.” What better gift can we have, for life and eternity, than fellowship with our Savior?

Our Father is merciful and generous—he gives us himself.

And believers—we have Jesus. He is ours and we are his, now and forever. Jesus walks with us; he does not leave us alone in suffering but comforts and guides us as our sympathetic High Priest. In our suffering, Lord, give us Jesus. In our painful circumstances, our lost hopes, our discouragement—give us Jesus.

4. God Gives What He Requires

God delights to answer this prayer! Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:10–11). Our Shepherd Savior is our hope and rest.

In our sin and sorrow, we default to wishlist thinking, but Jesus never did. We question our Father’s character and work—but Jesus trusted his Father unto death. We are weak, but Jesus obeyed in perfect strength. And those who look to him in faith are united with him in his righteousness. This is good news! Even as we doubt, we receive Jesus’s perfect track record and Jesus himself—what can compare to this eternal reality?

God is good. See the cross of Christ and the empty tomb for proof. Whatever you face today, your good, caring Father is working good for you in all things, and you’re headed for an eternal glory more satisfying than any earthly wish list.

The glow of her computer screen gone, Lexi sat in the darkness of her apartment. I can’t believe I did it again, she thought, seething with self-hatred after viewing pornography. To escape the swirl of shame and condemnation, Lexi put on a movie. It would be nine long days before she would pray or acknowledge God. I’ve messed up too many times, she told herself.

Perhaps you struggle with pornography or have an ongoing relationship of sexual temptation and failure in your life. You think, I can’t go to God again when I keep pursuing this! Or maybe you’re a friend, counselor, or pastor trying to understand another’s pervasive shame.

How can strugglers and helpers move out of the shame-spiral and toward real gospel hope?

Words of Death and Words of Life

Psalm 32 can guide Christian confession for your own heart and be a helpful map if you’re discipling someone burdened by unconfessed sin. It immediately gives a sobering prognosis and a rich assurance:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,

    whose sin is covered.

Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,

    and in whose spirit there is no deceit. (Ps. 32:1–2)

First, the bad news; three words describe our evil hearts. “Transgression is breaking the law. It connotes smashing or breaking ties in a relationship—always the case when we seek our own way outside of our loving relationship with our Creator. “Sin signifies failing to meet the standard of God’s perfect law, while “iniquityindicates the twisted, perverse nature of our hearts as we turn away from God and pursue sin.

God knows we simply cannot clean ourselves up enough to lift the weighty burden of our sin; we need help outside ourselves.

But there’s good news! The three words of life in these verses reveal what God accomplishes for us, meeting us in our sin and shame. “Forgiven speaks of the lifting or removal of a burden that is too great—God knows we simply cannot clean ourselves up enough to lift the weighty burden of our sin; we need help outside ourselves. “Covered indicates God removing our sin from his sight. When God “counts no iniquityagainst us, he calls us his righteous children, clothed in the spotless robes of Jesus himself. Lexi is no longer identified as a “porn struggler” or as “shameful.” In Christ, she’s a new creation.

If you’re stuck wondering how to move toward God after sexual sin or what to say to help a sexual struggler, start here. By faith, Lexi can take hold of the amazing gospel truth that when we confess our sins, our God “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Burden lifted! Sin covered! Righteousness declared!

The Sickness of Unconfessed Sin

Why did Lexi wait nine days to lift her eyes to God? What was happening in her heart during that painful time? Psalm 32 pictures the dangerous gap between sin and confession:

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away

    through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;

    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. (Ps. 32:3–4)

Of Psalm 32:3, Charles Spurgeon says,

When through neglect I failed to confess, or through despair dared not do so, my bones, those solid pillars of my frame, the stronger portions of my bodily constitution, waxed old, began to decay with weakness, for my grief was so intense as to sap my health and destroy my vital energy. What a killing thing is sin! It is a pestilent disease! A fire in the bones! While we smother our sin it rages within, and like a gathering wound, swells horribly and torments terribly.

Lexi is suffering spiritual anguish and shame. Psalm 32 points Christians toward humble confession of sin as the only solution to this sickness.

Acknowledge—Do Not Cover—Confess

I acknowledged my sin to you,

    and I did not cover my iniquity;

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”

    and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Ps. 32:5)

As a helper, know that there’s always a strong pull toward partial confessions. You may need to use targeted or even open-ended questions such as, “Is there anything more you’re not sharing with me?” True confession happens when Lexi stops attempting to deceive, hide, or conceal her transgressions from God and trusted helpers.

Unbelief and Satan’s lies thrive in our hearts in this dangerous gap between conviction and repentance.

Acknowledging sin before God and a trusted helper is the path to freedom. In the shame and secrecy of sexual sin, there’s a strong temptation to cover, hide, or conceal. If you find yourself, like Lexi, considering the costly step of fully coming into the light, let me encourage you—confession is the path to life! God will forgive the iniquity of your sin.

Are You Living in the Gap?

Are you holding on to unconfessed sin? The Bible never makes a case for a “probation period” or establishing sincerity before running to Christ when we see our sin. Unbelief and Satan’s lies thrive in our hearts in this dangerous gap between conviction and repentance. In this place, we turn to useless, sinful “remedies”:

  • Atonement: I will double-down on serving in church and reading my Bible. I’m a changed person; I can make up for this fall.
  • Penance: I will punish myself with negative self-talk and emotional self-hate because I must pay for this sin.
  • Self-Pity: I am going to comfort myself with more sin because I’m sad about how this will impact me or my loved ones. I am the victim.

Oh sin-sick Christian! God invites you to receive the true comfort, joy, and counsel you need when you’ve made a shipwreck of your soul in sexual sin. Step out of the gap and run toward your gracious Savior.

Accept God’s Invitation

Psalm 32 goes on to say that God will tenderly instruct, teach, and counsel you with his eye on you (v. 8). He will surround you with steadfast love and give you times of rejoicing—even shouting for joy (vv. 10–11)! He gives these things freely, only asking that you confess before him in humility, believing his promises by faith.

Can Lexi dare to believe God will forgive her? Can you point Lexi to the glorious truth that God gives grace to the humble? Hear this rich invitation:

Seek the Lord while he may be found;

    call upon him while he is near;

let the wicked forsake his way,

    and the unrighteous man his thoughts;

let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,

    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (Isa. 55:6–7)

Do you find yourself in Lexi’s story? Are you a woman struggling with sexual or relational sin? I encourage you to seek help and discipleship in your local church. And please, reach out to Harvest USA. We offer targeted discipleship and Biblical support groups for women in a supportive, Christ-centered environment at our Dresher, Pennsylvania, office or remotely on Zoom. The women’s ministry team is here to serve you and point you to Christ, our only hope. Here is your invitation to step out of the gap and into the path of confession and repentance.

 

[1] I was helped in my word study in the original languages by Joshua P. Steele’s Exegesis of Psalm 32 as well as Derek Kidner’s Commentary on Psalms 1–72.

This post follows my previous blogs, “Single Christian, Are You Enjoying Your Union with Christ?” and “Discouraged in the Battle Against Sin? Commune with the Living God!”

Understanding the dynamics of our communion with God can help us in the battle against sin, which, at times, can feel deeply discouraging. But it also sheds light on the deeper need in our hearts—to pursue joy and satisfaction in Jesus alone. As we seek freedom from sexual sin and say “No” to temptation, it’s important to feed the deepest longings in our hearts through communion with God.

Practical Ideas for Fostering Communion with God

In this life, we enjoy and commune with Christ by faith, so anything offered here is seen through that lens. Also, though the intent is practical, nothing will be a magic trick. There’s no “1, 2, 3 steps to victory!” or “Just do ______” quick fix for enjoying Jesus more. But, as we turn toward the practice of communion with God, here are 11 practical ways to pursue Christ.

  • Bible Reading

Jesus’s high priestly prayer in John 17 gives us a glimpse into his own view of the Bible: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). One way to grow in holiness and commune with God is to read his Word. One habit I’ve adopted is to stop before my Bible reading and intentionally call to mind that the words on the page are God’s revelation of himself to me. I pray from Psalm 119:18, “Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things from your law.” Enter into reading God’s Word with an expectant and humble posture, ready to receive of Jesus.

  • Prayer

In his earthly ministry, Jesus frequently went away to spend time in prayer communing with his Father. As with any relationship, spending time talking to someone will deepen your relational intimacy with them. Though we can’t see God, the faithful act of seeking him in personal prayer will cause you to more deeply commune with him. As we do this, he increasingly becomes our functional refuge: “Trust in him at all times O peoples! Pour out your heart before him, God is a refuge for us” (Ps. 62:8).

  • Church

In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, he prays that they might come to comprehend the love that God has for them. But how do they do this? Paul says they do this with all the saints!  “That you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:17b–19b, my emphasis).  In my own life, I’ve powerfully experienced the local church to be a primary means of learning about and communing with God. When I see a woman—tear-stained face—raising her hands in worship to God, and I know that this dear sister is deeply grieving a miscarriage, I can marvel at the worthiness of Christ as I bear her burdens with her. When I extend forgiveness or am forgiven by a brother or sister in the local church, I can worship God as the one who is faithful and just to forgive all my sins. When I forbear with a difficult-to-love brother or sister, I’m reminded of how Jesus bears with my difficult-to-love self in my many weaknesses! A healthy local church life will help us worship Christ and more deeply commune with him.

  • Meditation

Meditation is not emptying the mind. To the contrary, it is filling the mind with biblical truth. Meditation is the Christian’s way of slowly digesting truths about God—from God’s very own words—and intentionally calling them to mind to more deeply draw out these precious truths as we seek to apply them. God’s Spirit is an active agent in this endeavor. He reminds us of the words of Christ and leads us into all truth, enabling us to obey and believe.

  • Singing

Paul gives an example of one of the manifestations of being filled with the Spirit: “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:19). In our day, we have unprecedented access to a repository of rich songs from church history and incredible contemporary writing and music. If your heart is feeling cold, or communing with God feels too remote, try putting on a song with lyrics that specifically talk about God and his character or the gospel. Drawing near to God in song, with an aim to commune more deeply with him, is an often-neglected means of grace in private or family devotional time. Singing is not merely for congregational settings!

  • Scripture Memorization

The Psalmist asks, “How can a young man (or woman!) keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word,” and just a few verses later this idea is expanded, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:9, 11). Memorizing verses, passages or whole books of the Bible is a practical way to pursue communion with God. It’s a way to draw near to him, to demonstrate how precious his words are to you, and to submit your heart to him in humility, especially in your time of need. How our Father’s heart must delight in the preciousness of his people drawing near to him using his very own words of love and help!

  • Speaking about God

When the writer of Hebrews encourages the readers to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24), he says so in the context of drawing near to God and holding fast to our confession of hope in Christ. I believe the mutual edification of speaking about Jesus with one another can be a means to help us draw near and commune with God. Believers in Jesus, indwelt with the Holy Spirit, have the unique ability to help one another behold and commune with Christ. Let us consider this deep privilege and obey the command to consider how to do just this!

  • Enjoying God’s Creation

Simply beholding the beauty of the natural world, the creation of God, can help draw the believer’s heart to worship and commune with the Creator. The Psalmist writes, “The heavens declare the Glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). Getting out into God’s creation can be a way to help center your own thoughts on the greatness of the Creator. It’s not the creation itself that we worship. Rather, the creation points us to the beauty, power, and majesty of the creator—Father, Son, and Spirit.

  • Serving Others

In our service to others, particularly when we use the gifts God has uniquely given us, we can rest in and commune with God. Scottish Olympic sprinter Eric Liddell famously remarked, “God made me fast and when I run, I feel his pleasure.” There is opportunity for communion with and worship of God in serving and sacrificing for others. This is one of the dichotomies of the Christian life, that, as Jesus said, “it is better to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

  • Reading about God

The Bible is not the only book that can help our hearts engage with and commune with God. Good books about God can also stir up our affections for Christ and guide our hearts to worship and adore him. Consider reading a book about God’s character, his attributes, or the gospel. Perhaps reading a missionary biography or devotional book can help your heart grow in its affections for God himself. The purpose is not merely knowledge, but knowledge that elevates the heart to worship God for his perfections! Books that do this are a blessing and help to us in our efforts to commune with God.

  • Fasting

In Matthew 6:16, Jesus doesn’t say “if you fast” but rather, “when you fast. . .” (my emphasis). The practice of fasting is particularly neglected in the West, but fasting can be a powerful way to commune with God. Giving an intentional time and space to the Lord, to direct your heart toward your dependence on him through fasting, can point your affections toward the truth that we are dependent on him for all things—at all times. For some, fasting from food may not be an option, so consider fasting from another legitimate thing such as entertainment, technology, or other enjoyments.

Persevere in Your Pursuit of Deeper Communion

Does this feel discouraging? Does it feel like a checklist or mountain to climb? Let your pursuit of communion with Christ begin in that very place—the place of your weakness and need. Tell God how you feel. He knows you and wants to help you see him more clearly. Cling to his promise in Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” It’s not a daily mountaintop experience we’re pursuing, but rather a faithful and formative obedience—which leads to joy.

“I said I would never do it again.”

“I can’t believe I’m back to the same old sin patterns.”

“Why can’t I stop doing this?”

“I thought I was past this.”

Why do we pursue sexual sin, particularly after we’ve come to loathe the impact it has on us, our spouse, our ministries, and our relationship with the living God? Have you ever said with the Apostle Paul, “Wretched man (or woman) that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24)?

There are many reasons why we pursue broken sexual choices, but I would like to focus on one core motivation: unfulfilled longing for something transcendent. Our hearts are designed to long for something intimate, life-giving, and hope filled. Sexual sin makes many promises, but it can never give us these things. Even godly sex within marriage, as glorious a gift as it may be, fails to be the ultimate fulfillment our hearts deeply—and rightly—long for. Speaking of the folly of idolatry in his commentary on Isaiah, Ray Ortlund says, “It’s absurd to try to derive an ultimate experience from a less-than-ultimate resource. That’s false worship” (293).

This blog follows a previous post entitled, “Single Christian, Are You Enjoying Your Union with Christ?” and takes a deeper look into union with Christ.

Two Distinct Realities: Union and Communion

Before discussing the nuts and bolts of how to enjoy your union with Christ, it’s important to make a distinction between two concepts: union and communion.

Union with Christ is a position Christians enjoy as a result of the work of Christ on their behalf, uniting them completely to himself. It is passively received; it is not something merited, achieved, or fought for. It is an act of sheer grace from God’s benevolent heart down to the Christian. Marcus Peter Johnson describes union this way in his book One with Christ:

To experience fellowship with the Son is to be made alive in Christ, justified in Christ, sanctified in Christ, seated in the heavenly realms in Christ, built up into Christ, and given fullness in Christ. Those joined to Christ are “members of Christ,” “crucified in Christ,” “included in Christ,” “baptized into Christ,” and “the body of Christ.” They eat and drink Christ, they are one with Christ, Christ dwells in them and they dwell in him; they can do nothing apart from him (39).

When reading this definition, you may be tempted to think, “Well, that’s great, but I live in the real world and certainly don’t feel like I’m on cloud nine, united to Jesus all day, every day!” How are we to reconcile the glorious truth of our irrevocable union with Christ with our day-to-day reality, which, if we’re honest, often feels dull, disappointing, or at times even hopeless?

Understanding the dynamics of our communion with the triune Godhead may shed light on the frustration of this dissonance between what we read in Johnson’s definition and what we experience in our daily lives.

Communion with God is the felt experience of the life of God intersecting with our own; it’s the sense that we relationally interact with God himself through the varied means of grace. We share in the life of God and relate to him in the many ways he represents himself as father, king, intercessor, comforter, counselor, refuge, friend, high priest, elder brother, great physician, husband, and sympathizer with our weakness. This isn’t even an exhaustive list of all the ways God describes his communion with his people! Contrary to our union with Christ, our communion does ebb and flow. It is subject to our weakness, efforts, striving, and lack thereof. We may experience profound joy in communion with Christ and we may experience seasons of weariness and discouragement. Even mature believers go through times when they struggle to have rich communion with God.

Our communion with God—or lack of communion—is one key to the “why” behind our sinful behaviors and attitudes. John Flavel says it this way:

The soul is so constituted that it craves fulfillment from things outside itself and will embrace earthly joys for satisfaction when it cannot reach spiritual ones. The believer is in spiritual danger if he allows himself to go any length of time without tasting the love of Christ and savoring the felt comforts of a Savior’s presence. When Christ ceases to fill the heart with satisfaction, our souls go in silent search of other lovers (vol. 2, 438).

Growing in holiness and purity is not merely the “putting off” of unwanted behaviors, though it is not less than that. It is also the “putting on” and pursuit of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Seeking deeper communion with God—the one who loves our souls—is a death blow to the pet sins we nurture because it brings the satisfaction we were longing for when we chose to pursue sin in the first place.

Acknowledging the Mystery

There is a degree of wonder and mystery involved in comprehending our union with Christ. When we pursue Christ, we’re endeavoring to do what only the Holy Spirit can enable us to do. In this life, we enjoy and commune with Christ by faith.

We must observe a posture of humility because, after all, we’re talking about communing with—enjoying, relating to—the living God. This is his world. All things are for him and through him and to him (Rom. 11:36), on his terms. Thankfully, we have a gracious God who wants to disclose himself to us—to be known and worshiped in Spirit and in truth. He is not hiding, so knowing God is not a scavenger hunt. Take heart! God relates to us intimately. He is deeply personal and specific, so there’s not a “one size fits all” method to unlock the secret to true communion.

It’s helpful to acknowledge that pursuing communion with Christ in a faithful way may differ for each Christian based on their season of life. A mother of young children, a man in hospice, a young professional, a pastor, and a teen all may have different habits of communion with God.

A dear brother in his nineties said that singing and playing his piano in worship to Christ has become more primary as Bible reading grew more difficult with age. Similarly, a mom with school-aged kids shared that in her single years she experienced her communion with God as primarily a silent, meditative time alone in the Scriptures. She laughed as she remarked, “I can’t remember the last time there was silence in our home!” As you seek after communion with God, seek first to be faithful in that pursuit. Rather than unlocking the secret to a transcendent experience, communion with God can grow even in the ordinary moments of daily life.

Why do we pursue sin in the first place? Often, it’s because we’re not pursuing our indescribably satisfying Savior. We try to fill our desire for transcendence with cheap trinkets when we have all the depth of the riches of wisdom and knowledge of God in Christ (Rom. 11:33). Indwelling sin can’t hold a candle to communion with God.

In the next installment of this blog series, I’ll discuss ten practical ways you can pursue deeper communion with Christ.

Several years ago, a ‘worship’ song went viral with two million hits. With a beautiful melody and poetic words, it caught the hearts of many.

You’re the first thing I know I can believe in,

You’re holy, holy, holy, holy, I’m high on loving you

You’re the healing hands where it used to hurt,

You’re my saving grace, you’re my kind of church,

You’re holy.

This, however, is not a song about the Lord Jesus Christ, but a romantic relationship. H.O.L.Y., the song’s title, refers to someone being “high on loving you.” The words of devotion and ecstasy are about a person providing healing and saving grace. This person is even described as a “church” within which to worship.

We all desire the security of feeling loved—and we’re all tempted to find that security not in God our Creator but in unhealthy relationships with people around us. Through books, songs, and movies we have stories of people craving and searching for an experience of love and security that can only truly—and in a healthy way—be met by Jesus.

Worshipping a Person or Loving Them

As H.O.L.Y. illustrates, romantic love is one way the worship of a person can displace Jesus as the worthy focus of our hearts. However, idolatry of people happens between parents and kids, in friendships and mentoring relationships. Wherever there are two hearts unanchored from worshipping and depending upon Christ, there is fertile soil for relational idols to grow.

Tim Keller describes idols as “anything more important to us than God, anything that absorbs our heart and imagination, anything we seek to give us only what God can give” (xix). When your meaning in life is to fix someone else’s life, to have your life fixed, your heart healed, or an empty heart made whole through a person, it’s false worship. Often this is called codependency, but it’s really idolatry.

God’s word is clear that he alone is to be worshipped, rather than any created thing—including people.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Ex. 20:2-3)

God is to have no rivals or replacements in our lives, hearts, and affections. Often, relationships with people can intrude upon our intimacy with God as our hearts’ devotion is easily hijacked by the human element that people, a good gift, offer to us.

“Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and dug out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer. 2:11–13)

I’ve struggled over the years to keep people in their proper place in my life; I’m not alone! I’ve walked with so many women who have become consumed with a best friend, boyfriend, or mentor in their lives. What God may have provided as a gift has become ultimate, displacing God and resulting in an entangled mess of codependency. Paul says it this way: “. . . they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom. 1:25).

This exchange of the created thing for our loving Creator is one of the most common sins. If you see yourself in this article, have hope! You are not alone. And let’s be clear: desires for unfailing love, to be deeply known, needed, pursued—even just to matter to someone—are beautiful aspects of being image bearers of God who loves us deeply, knows us completely, and exists Himself in a holy, relational Trinity.

The problem is that our image bearing capability has been distorted by sin. Our desires have become disordered. What is “natural” to us rises from our sinful hearts. All of us struggle in one way or another in our relationships. We crave and work at getting things from people that can truly only be found in our union with Christ.

Engage Some Diagnostic Questions 

Is there a person in your life who:

  • . . . you depend on for your sense of identity and value?
  • . . . you obsess about in your thoughts?
  • . . . you feel addicted to being in touch with throughout the day? Not having contact prompts you to feel threatened and insecure?
  • . . . is needy for you to be a parent/counselor/surrogate-spouse for them, and you are happy and secure in this role of being a ‘need-meeter’ and rescuer?
  • . . . has been a friend or counselee but has become someone for whom you have romantic feelings and / or have gotten involved with physically, perhaps even sexually?

Friend, did you answer ‘yes’ to any of those questions? If so, I plead with you to pause. You may be playing with fire, or you may be in the flames already. Displacing Christ with people may happen intentionally from a hard heart; it also happens when we are naïve. Regardless of how you got here, Jesus has a way out for you.

Steps to Take If You’re Entangled in a Relational Mess

  1. If this person is a family member, you’ll need to get help to understand what healthy boundaries are and what godly love looks and feels like. God is not calling you to abandon this relationship but to have your affections and the relational dynamics radically reoriented and transformed. Seek help from someone outside your family.
  2. For other relationships:
    • If there has been sexual involvement, confess your sin to a trusted person, end the relationship, and commit to no contact with this person for an indefinite length of time.
    • Seek Christ! You probably won’t feel like it, but fleeing to him and his Word is a must.*
    • Expect a season of pain and grief that can lead you to God’s comfort. In one of his letters, John Newton said, “He wounds—in order to heal. He kills—that he may make alive. He casts down—when he designs to raise. He brings a death upon our feelings, wishes and prospects—when he is about to give us the desire of our hearts.”
    • Pursue discipleship regarding the underlying heart issues that made you vulnerable to idolizing people.
    • Hope! One day, the pain of this costly obedience will subside. Jesus is with you and he will never stop loving you.
    • Believe! God Himself does battle with our idols as he transforms us into Christlikeness.

God has brought me a long way in my journey into relational wholeness and holiness. What was once a pattern in my life isn’t anymore. What felt necessary, life-giving, and beautiful (but was none of these), has faded from my heart and been replaced with a desire for Christ that fuels godly love rather than grasping relational lust. God wants to delight you with healthy, rich relationships, and my prayer for you as I post this article is that today you will have hope and courage to take the steps you need to be free.

*You might consider working through my 31-day devotional book, Toxic Relationships: Taking Refuge in Christ.

I believe God designed our hearts on earth to be motivated by future realities. We don’t eat ice cream at 4:00 p.m. because a delicious dinner is on the horizon. We don’t spend all our money on present desires because we need to save for the future. We accept painful physical exercise for short- and long-term health benefits. In our best moments, we’re always keeping the future in view.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the apostles are so fixated upon the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. They repeatedly use the imminent and certain Day of the Lord as motivation for our present obedience:

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Heb. 10:24–25)

“Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet.1:13)

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Cor. 5:10)

“Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” (James 5:7­–8)

“For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thess. 1:9–10)

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.” (Rev. 22:12)

The apostles wrote this way because Jesus taught them to focus on his return. Jesus spoke in many parables about his second coming and the great need to be prepared: we must have oil in our lamps, the proper wedding attire, wise investments of our talents, and faithfulness in God’s house.

Denying Christ’s Return

But what does this have to do with pornography?

Sin is a denial of Christ’s return. Looking at pornography is a tacit agreement with the skeptics who say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet. 3:4). If we don’t believe Jesus is coming back, why bother with obedience? Our motivation matters! And this is where we need to be careful to understand Scripture correctly.

Our obedience does not earn our salvation—that’s impossible. Anyone seeking salvation through their own righteousness will be greatly disappointed when Jesus returns. Our motivation is not, “Don’t look at porn so that Jesus will accept you.”

No, faith in Jesus’s person and work is the only way of salvation and true obedience is only possible because of our secure acceptance in Christ. The gospel powers our motivation to obey: “Don’t look at porn because, in his abundant mercy, Jesus has accepted you.”

Fixing Our Hearts on Christ’s Return

So then, how does Christ’s coming return motivate our present obedience? There are at least five ways:

  • The crown of righteousness is for those who love his appearing (2 Timothy 4:8).

To be a Christian is to love Jesus—because he first loved us. Every true Christian can and must say, “Jesus, I love you.” Not only must we love him, but we must also love him above all others. What greater desire could we have than to see our Savior face to face? Fellow Christian, turn from pornography today because you love Jesus. May the thought of seeing him, as he is, turn your eyes from worthless things (Ps. 119:37).

  • Jesus will repay us for what we have done (Revelation 22:12).

Jesus teaches us to store up treasures in heaven that will last for eternity. He wants us to think like eternal investors. It’s exciting to think about small, frequent investments compounding over time into something much greater. I can’t overstate how much bigger the scale of compound interest is for eternal investments! Looking at pornography is the worst eternal investment policy.

  • There is a holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).

This holiness is not referring to the imputed righteousness of Christ but the holiness of a believer’s sanctification. Our union with Christ deals with our guilt and defeats its power and corrupting influence in us. This doesn’t mean we’ll be perfect in this life, but we will be growing in holiness. Beware the lie that our present Christian life ever involves coasting. No, it is a constant striving! “Strive to enter through the narrow door” (Luke 13:24). “Strive to enter” God’s eternal rest (Heb. 4:11). “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).

  • Our holy living today is the future adornment of Christ’s bride (Revelation 19:8).

When Jesus returns, there’s going to be a wedding with Jesus the bridegroom and the church his bride. This is a corporate reality, but our individual lives matter. John speaks of this bride adorned with “fine linen, bright and pure,” representing “the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev. 19). All Christians are in wedding preparation mode. Weeks—months—before the wedding, a bride is making meticulous preparations. But no matter how glorious she may look, there can be no comparison to the bride of Christ at the wedding supper of the Lamb.

  • Christ’s return will consummate our union and communion with God.

Every time we think of Christ’s return, we should be reminded of what life is all about—communion with God. We have that communion now, through Christ, but it’s by faith. It’s not yet consummated. But when Jesus returns—then and only then will the dwelling place of God be with man (Rev. 21:3). Until that day, all creation groans with longing and expectation (Rom. 8:22). Meditating on Christ’s return brings us back to the heart and center of all meaning and existence.

It’s hard to dwell on such weighty realities and then run to pornography. In the words of John Ross Macduff:

“Earth can now but tell the story of thy bitter cross and pain;

she shall yet behold the glory, when thou comest back to reign:

Christ is coming! Christ is coming!

Let each heart repeat the strain.”

When we think of lust, we think of sexual temptation and desire gone too far. While in one sense that’s true, lust has more to do, not with the person you are looking at, but what you value in your heart. That beautiful person who has captured your eye?  That’s not the object that really matters. Lust has to do with what we covet, and what we covet has to do with what we feel we lack in life. We covet those things that our heart feels like we must have in life. Emptiness is what can cause us to lust. Listen to what Mark has to say, and read his blog, “The Insecurity of Lust.”

 

Every day we are tempted to lust after people. It can be discouraging to feel overwhelmed by attractive people who pull your heart in unhealthy directions. But is there more going on with lust than just what we see with our eyes? Lust always has a hook of some kind. It has to latch onto something in our heart. That hook can sometimes be the insecurities we feel in the recesses of our heart.

Am I good enough? Do I measure up? Will others notice me? Do I really matter? In a world of celebrities, social media, and unrealistic expectations for success and beauty, we all wrestle with deep insecurities about our worth and identity. Our enemy knows that we have profound desires to be cherished, adored, accepted, and significant in the eyes of others; and he knows how to lead us to false means of finding security and fulfillment for these longings.

I believe that sexual lust is one of the most powerful ways that Satan capitalizes on our deep insecurities about our identity and worth. The problem with lust is not that some people are just too attractive or seductive for you to resist. It’s about using other people to build up your own sense of significance and worth.

Consider this scenario. You’re walking down a city street, and every five seconds you feel bombarded with temptation to lust after the people you pass by.  Ask yourself this question, “Who are the people I’m tempted by? By what criteria do I judge the significance of those people?”

For many, I would expect they are tempted by people who are confident in their identity and their appearance. They might flaunt their body because they know people like what they see. They could be wearing expensive clothing, designer sunglasses, and have accessories that cost more than your used car. The details of what people find attractive will vary from person to person. What’s important to note here is this: what attracts you is what you value most.

Lust is seen as the product of visual stimuli that enters our eyes and then immediately is translated into sexual desire. But that analysis completely ignores the role of our heart.

Now ask yourself another question: When I encounter attractive people, how am I experiencing my own sense of worth and significance? Do you start to entertain thoughts of what it’d be like if that person were attracted to you? Do you wonder whether they noticed you and are even thinking about you?  Perhaps you feel intimidated by attractive people, but with that intimidation comes a desperate desire to belong and be accepted by them.

Lust in the Bible is deeply connected to the sin of covetousness. In the tenth commandment, we are forbidden to covet our neighbor’s wife. The Greek word translated there and elsewhere in the New Testament can be translated as “desire, lust, or coveting.” Depending on the context, this word can even have positive meanings, like when Jesus earnestly desired to eat the Passover with his disciples in Luke 22:15.

But in many contexts, this is a sinful desire for something that God has forbidden. Jesus uses this word in Matthew 5:28 when he says, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

It’s important to talk about covetousness because lust is often talked about in a way that is disconnected from our hearts. Lust is seen as the product of visual stimuli that enters our eyes and then immediately is translated into sexual desire. But that analysis completely ignores the role of our heart. Coveting, on the other hand, is connected to deeper desires. We covet what we don’t have. And while we can covet things because we want the pleasure they give us, I believe the deeper reason we covet things is that we believe those things will provide us with a sense of security and worth that we feel is lacking.

This can be a powerful factor in who you find attractive and who you are tempted to lust after.  You desire to have that person because they will build up your own sense of value and worth. If that person were to affirm you sexually, even if it’s only fantasy, it is meeting a felt need to be admired, adored, wanted, or needed. In this sense, lust’s main focus isn’t on the object of your lust—the larger focus is on yourself and the insecurity you experience in your identity.

Lust that seeks to find validation and worth in possessing another is looking to the wrong person. Jesus has invited us to be united to him, and by his Spirit he is pleased to dwell in us! 

So if this explanation is true (and this is only one way to understand lust), that your struggle with lust lies with your own insecurities, how can you begin to fight against lust by addressing where you find your identity, worth, and value?

Insecurities about our worth and value come from a variety of places. They may be connected to a lack of affirmation in your upbringing. You might have been bullied by peers at school, or even demeaned and abused by your family. Much of our insecurities come from living in a culture that prizes success and making a name for yourself. But whatever our circumstances have been, all human beings share one powerful, foundational struggle.

We aren’t good enough. We don’t measure up. We all have fallen short of the glory of God. It is only in reconciliation with our Maker that any true security is found. We are reconciled to God through the person and work of Jesus Christ. He took our punishment and has given us his perfect record of righteousness. By faith, we are united to Christ, and all of his benefits now become ours. So presently we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph.2:6); we are co-heirs of the Kingdom with him as God’s adopted children (Romans 8:17); we are ambassadors of the King of the Universe (2 Corinthians 5:20); we are God’s royal priests and his special possession (1 Peter 2:9); and we are loved with the same love that God the Father has for God the Son (John 17:23).

Lust that seeks to find validation and worth in possessing another is looking to the wrong person. Jesus has invited us to be united to him, and by his Spirit he is pleased to dwell in us!  The next time you are out and about, and tempted to find your validation in the attractive people around you, pray that God would help you to believe Galatians 2:20 at that moment, “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

There is no greater validation of who you are than to be united to the King. Christ is not ashamed to call you his brother. He is pleased to show himself to the world through you! He wants to make his love manifest to others through your love. He delights in allowing you to represent Him. What greater dignity can we possibly ask for?


Mark shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: How Is Lust a Form of Coveting? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.

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