Sunday, February 22, 2009

Seeing It Through

(Read James 1:1-8 and Mark 1:40-45)

Several years ago I was doing pastoral counseling with a woman named Terri, who had come to talk with me because her last two relationships had failed due to her partners’ infidelity, and now she was concerned about her current relationship. Let me tell you a little bit about Terri’s history so you can understand the situation better. When Terri was just 18 years old, her mother died a rather long and painful death from lung cancer. Before she passed away, Terri’s mother had told her daughter that she hoped Terri’s father would remarry. Terri hated the thought of her dad being with another woman, but tried to understand what her mother was telling her. However, when Terri’s dad married her mother’s best friend only a year after her mom’s passing, she grew furious. She thought, how could they do that to her mother?

By then, Terri had gone off to college, and while away, she refused to speak to her new step-mother and barely spoke with her father. In her junior year of college, Terri began dating a young man named Tom, who was good-looking, funny, smart. Terri fell for him hard, and you can imagine her anger and sadness when just six months into their relationship, Terri found out that Tom had cheated on her with one of her sorority sisters. She felt betrayed and became almost obsessed with Tom’s “other woman.”

Graduation came as a relief, and Terri moved to Chicago to start over fresh. She worked in sales, and at her office, she met Matthew. Matthew was charismatic and charming, and he adored Terri. They fell in love quickly and married within a year. Life was a honeymoon for about two years, but then Terri and Matthew began arguing quite a bit. Terri became jealous of the women who played on Matthew’s co-ed softball team He invited her to join the team or just come and watch, but Terri refused. Tension began building in the house. About a year later, Matthew came to Terri and said he wanted a divorce. She tried to talk him out of it, saying that they should go to couples’ therapy before they made any hasty decisions. But Matthew shook his head, no. He had met another woman, and he was certain that he wanted a divorce. In a moment of explosive anger, Terri threw a vase at Matthew’s head, demanding to know if it was one of the women from his softball league. Matthew said it wasn’t, but Terri didn’t believe him.

Between her dad’s marriage to her mother’s best friend, and her failed relationships with Tom and Matthew, Terri had lost faith in men, and she had become competitive and envious of other women. Two years after her divorce was finalized, Terri came to talk to me because she had met someone new, Brad, whom she really liked. But she was terrified of getting into another relationship. She was terrified of the person she had become at the end of her divorce, and she already felt some of those old feelings resurfacing. Before she and Brad even really started to date, Terri felt incredibly insecure, and she was suspicious and jealous of the women that worked in Brad’s office.

In our first session, Terri told me that she feared her relationships with men were like a broken record, and she was doomed to repeat the mistakes of her past. She wanted to break the pattern of picking men who ended up cheating on her, and she wanted desperately to stop feeling so jealous and suspicious of other women.

No one here has the exact same story as Terri, but I would guess that we all have something in common with her. Sadly, many of us find ourselves making the same mistakes in life over and over again. Or we find ourselves in similar situations over and over again. We don’t do it intentionally or even consciously. Some patterns, like trying a new musical instrument every year and never staying with any of them long enough to really learn how to play, are minor in terms of the way they affect our lives. But other patterns are very destructive. Without meaning to or even knowing why we do it, people often get themselves into unhealthy patterns that make their lives miserable. The addictive cycle is one such pattern. Choosing abusive partners is another. Not being able to hold down a job is another. Money patterns, such as excessive spending or never paying bills, tickets or taxes on time is another. Yo-yo dieting is another. The examples are endless.

Until we learn how to handle such patterns, such problems, we are doomed to keep repeating them. I think the practical instructions in James 1:1-8 can teach us how to break free of such unhealthy and unsatisfying living.

In the beginning of this letter, James says that trials and difficult situations are actually opportunities for growth. The more times you find yourself in such trials or situations, the more opportunities you have to grow out of them. If you remain faithful to God amidst such tribulations and suffering, you will make it through them, you will come out on the other side, but endurance is key.

James insists that you must keep going all the way through the ordeal in order to mature, in order to become perfect and complete. Don’t quit part way through because then you won’t fully grow up. Endure until you receive the full benefit so that you will lack in nothing.

It’s the idea of walking through the forest. The only way to get to the other side of a situation is by walking through the forest, no matter how scary, until you come out on the other side transformed. If you only go part way and stop, you won’t fully work through the problem at hand, and then sooner or later, you will probably find yourself back where you started, at the entrance of the forest, in a familiar and problematic situation.

There is a reason why we keep getting ourselves into the same problematic situations over and over again, and that’s because we do what we know, we do what’s familiar, we do what we’ve always done whether or not such doing is working for or against us. It’s difficult to choose differently in life. If you are not sure how to make it through a repeat situation so that you break the pattern and end up on the other side, James advises that you pray to God, who gives graciously and generously, and will provide you with the wisdom that you need to succeed.

James advice is first to endure, to enter into the situation and see it through until the end, at which point you will be transformed. And second, to look to God for wisdom and guidance so that you can successfully make it through the forest to the other side.

Before I explain these points further, I’d like for each of you to think of some aspect of your life that you want to end or move past or stop doing, whether it’s a thought or a behavior. Perhaps some issue that you have prayed about more than once and maybe even cried out to God, when will this ever end? When will this stop being the case? Something you are sick of dealing with.

First, James admonishes us to endure. It’s a long process from the beginning to the end, for transformation to happen. Don’t just settle for half-healing or kind of being set free. Follow through, endure all the way until the end, until the pattern has been broken, until you are different, until you are free of that which plagues you.

In Mark 1: 40-45, a man with leprosy comes to Jesus begging him to make him clean. Jesus stretches out his hand and touches the leper, saying, “Be made clean!” And “Immediately the leprosy left [the man] and he was made clean” (Mark 1:42). But the story doesn’t end there. Jesus then tells the man to go show himself to the priests. You see, in those days, “according to the law, the leper needed to present himself to the priests and offer a sacrifice in order to reenter society and be restored to the community.” Without doing this, the man, though cleansed of leprosy would have remained an outcast in society. Jesus wanted him to keep going, to endure if you will, so that he would be fully healed, not just partially healed. To be cleansed of the leprosy will change the man’s physical condition, but to see his whole life changed, he needs to be welcomed back into the community. Thus, the leper can’t just stop after seeking out Jesus. He must continue on and go to the priests as well.

If we really want to come through our problems on the other side, we must stay with them until all aspects of our lives that they affected have been healed. If you’re someone who struggles with holding down a job, it’s not enough to get a new job. You have to find work you like and are good at, and then stay at it for a significant period of time to be fully healed. If you’re someone who yo-yo diets and feels bad about your body, it’s not enough to lose X number of pounds only to gain it back. You have to lose the weight by developing sustainable healthy eating habits and by exercising. You have to feel good about yourself and keep the weight off to be fully healed. If you are in an abusive relationship, you not only have to get out of that relationship, you have to stop choosing abusive partners. You have to go to therapy to work through your trauma and pain. Being fully healed involves our whole selves – mind, body, spirit, relationships, emotions

How does this full healing take place? With God’s help of course. There’s a reason we keep finding ourselves in the same old predicament, and it has to do with thinking and acting in the same ways we always have. But God is ready and willing to show us new ways of thinking and acting so that we will have new results.

James second piece of advise is to seek God’s wisdom. God’s wisdom will teach you an enlightened way of thinking and acting so that you can make it all the way through the forest and come out on the other side matured, transformed, or in James’ words, perfect and complete.

When Terri came to me for counseling, she was committed to solving this problem of hers. She was ready to endure until her relationships and feelings within relationships changed. As we talked, she said she was feeling an urge to get to know the women in Brad’s office before she went any further with him in their relationship. It was something she had never done before, a new way of approaching the situation. Instead of drilling Brad about these women day and night to make sure he wasn’t attracted to them, instead of refusing to speak to these women (like she refused to speak to the women on Matthew’s softball team) because she perceived them as threats, Terri decided she wanted to get to know them. Luckily, when she told Brad this, he thought it was a great idea. So one day, they went out for drinks after work. Brad introduced Terri to the women he worked with, Veronica and Beth, the whole while keeping his arm loosely around the small of her back. Terri discovered that both Veronica and Beth were married and that they were very nice people. And finally, she didn’t feel so threatened by their existence in Brad’s life.

All it takes to live life in a new way is to think and act in a new way. This is easier said than done. It takes courage and endurance and wisdom, but it’s completely possible. Like James says, we are fortunate when we experience trials, even similar trials over and over again, because if we have enduring faith in God and if we pray for wisdom, these trials become opportunities for spiritual enlightenment and result in a better way of existing in this world. They result in a happier and healthier life.

What this results in is a happier life for you and for me. So next time you find yourself in the same old situation, don’t walk away. Don’t do what you always do either. But walk faithfully into the situation, trusting that God’s wisdom will show you a new way to live.

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