Triggers, Urge-surfing and the God Who Heals Us

I have triggers. When I hear an ice cream truck, something in me immediately goes back to 1205 Eisenhower Drive, my childhood home. When I smell popcorn, I’m in National Hills Theater and in my happy place. The picture of a margarita will send me a craving. I haven’t had a drink in 25 years, but the picture of a margarita still sends me back. What are your triggers?

Think of an emotional trigger like a little internal tether. It links us emotionally to something behind us. Sometimes that thing is good (like the smell of coffee in the morning) and sometimes it is not so good.

I often equate triggers with the struggle of the Israelites out in the desert, with Egypt on one side and the promised land on the other. They seemed to live in a constant internal tension, trying to press forward while Egypt called them backward. That seems to be the human condition. We tell ourselves little lies all the time that head us back toward Egypt. We romanticize slavery. That other life was simpler, less stressful. Or maybe it wasn’t so fun, but at least we didn’t have to work as hard. And those tiny internal justifications stir us to head back toward things that enslave us.

Once in the midst of Israelite complaints, God did a miracle. He turned bitter water sweet and then gave them this revelation: “I am the LORD who heals you.’” They named that place “Marah.” It became the place in their story where God spoke the kind of healing that turns bitter things sweet.

That makes Marah an important place on the spiritual map. It is the place we pass through that is hard, like the bitterness that settles in after the initial shock of divorce or the loneliness that follows rejection. Or the emptiness that follows loss. It is that place after a blow or temptation when we don’t quite know what to do next. When we aren’t aware of what is going on inside, we will struggle to press forward. We’ll long for Egypt, for old familiar territory. Virginia Satyr says that most people prefer the certainty of misery than the misery of uncertainty. We’d rather head back to Egypt than learn to live as healthy people, but Egypt is diseased while “I AM the God Who Heals You.”

Out in the desert, God explains to the Israelites what they are dealing with. “When you begin to do holy, you will tempted to go backward but there is no healing for you in Egypt. And there is no healing for you in the place you’re headed if all you do is drag your enslaved mentality with you to that new place. Freedom is in the God who heals you” (see Lev. 18). The trick, God seems to tell them, is to understand their triggers so they can get control of them. 

Learn your triggers. Folks who have dealt with addictions and messy lives find they are much more successful in recovery when they learn what their triggers are. Heather Hill, once an addict and now free from that life, gives some powerful advice about triggers:

Being triggered does not make me a bad Christian. It doesn’t mean I lack faith or that I am somehow less than. And the moment I start believing it does, I am that much closer to giving in to it. Triggers are simply remnants of my old self hanging on for dear life, because the old me doesn’t want to die. They are my thorn, reminding me of who I once was and reminding me how much I will always need God. My triggers are not in control. They don’t drive the bus. The most dangerous thing about a trigger is the urge that follows. And it’s tough, because it usually includes a physical reaction I cannot control.

The urge that follows my trigger only last about three minute. It used to last longer. I have found that the harder I fight the urge, the longer it lasts. When I rail against it in anger or disgust (because I believe the above point), I am thinking about it harder than I ought. When I am triggered to the point of an urge, the best thing to do is absolutely nothing. Pray it out. Wait it out. Don’t DO anything. Focus on God and pray until it is over. In rehab, we called it “urge surfing.” Because it comes in like a wave, peaks, and rolls out again.

There are practical ways to avoid my triggers. There are the obvious ways, like avoiding people, places and things. But when that isn’t possible (like when my family member is a trigger), the best way to overcome them is to understand them. Understanding why someone or something triggers me is the best way to move towards healing.Understanding removes the aspect of fear and confusion from the equation. And it gives me a point of focus for my prayers. I am triggered because I am a broken human being who needs healing.

Understanding my triggers helps me understand my brokenness. My best defense against triggers has always been gratitude. Remembering what God has done for me, how far he has carried me, all he has redeemed in my life, keeps me moving forward.

Healthy, life-giving relationships are key to recovery. We may always experience triggers, but we never have to face them alone. We are surrounded by a community of people who love us and want to see us healed. God is for us. His people are for us.

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Ten Marks of Spiritual Leaders

Leadership is both a privilege and a choice. To participate at the highest levels in God’s mission of redemption is a high and humbling honor. It is also a choice freely made by those who sense a call from the Lord to step forward; it should never be forced. These ten principles have helped us at Mosaic set a standard for healthy spiritual leadership:

  • A personal, living relationship with Jesus Christ. This goes beyond a mental assent to a set of principles. This is about a personal connection with God that is transformational and liberating. Without this kind of faith, we would be setting people up for failure at best, spiritual attack at worst.
  • A fervent commitment to prayer. Intercede regularly for the ministry, people and leaders. Spiritual leaders are not afraid to lead in prayer, and would not consider starting a meeting or leading a ministry without saturating it in prayer. Spiritual leaders understand and engage in spiritual warfare.
  • An enthusiastic commitment to being here. Spiritual leadership requires a commitment to the vision throughout the life of the church, not just in your ministry area. This includes a commitment to small group membership, as well as attendance at any leadership gathering or important meeting of the church.
  • A joyful commitment to giving. The Christian life stresses the importance of investing in the community that feeds you. Solid Christian leadership also stresses the importance of good modeling. People want to know that if you’re standing before them as a leader, you are invested in the life of the church in the same way they are. They should not be expected to trust the leadership of someone who is not sacrificing in the same ways they are, nor should they be expected to allow you to make decisions on their behalf if you are not invested.
  • A humble commitment to serving. This means not only serving where you are appointed, but making time to serve where you are called by the gospel to join in — particularly service to the poor.
  • A radical commitment to the Great Commission.  This means a willingness not only to see the church winning people to Christ, but a personal desire to share your faith story and invite people into a saving relationship with Jesus.
  • A healthy commitment to practicing emotional intelligence. This means open, direct and honest communication; a willingness to ask clarifying questions and accept constructive coaching; an absolute commitment to grace; and a refusal to feed any spirit of offense. It means being willing to deal honestly with your own brokenness. It means being willing to approach people immediately when conflict arises, placing a high value on reconciliation and an absolute trust in the principles of Matthew 18:15-20.
  • A transparent commitment to loyalty. In both speech and action. Leadership is for those who are committed to both the vision and the team. If you’re not, then my question would not only be, “Why are you in leadership?” but also, “Why have you chosen this place for your spiritual care and feeding?” Because life is too short to serve someplace where you’re not all in.
  • An educated commitment to an orthodox, evangelical expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Understand our theology so you can support our message and care well for those exploring the faith.
  • An unwavering commitment to excellence. No one person comes into leadership fully equipped. A continual commitment to education and training is critical for the leadership of a growing community. If we are going to stay on the leading edge of God’s movement, we need leaders who understand what God is doing in the world today and who are enthusiastic about joining Him in that work.

This is our list. What is yours? What matters to you in a leader? Having a clear vision and standards for healthy leadership is a prime way we can battle against the usual accusations about what it means to be “church.” Shoot for excellence so the Holy Spirit has room to work.

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You should know this about spiritual thresholds.

I’ve become interested in spiritual thresholds, that point of entry that leads us from one spiritual “room” to the next. Thresholds mark our progress, and they represent forward movement in our spiritual maturity. It makes sense, then, that it would be precisely at the thresholds that we experience the most pressure. After all, the enemy of your soul has a vested interest in keeping your interest low in moving forward. The enemy of your soul is not a fan of break-throughs (he prefers spiritual lethargy). So it seems to me that it is as I approach the threshold from one level of intimacy with Christ to another, deeper level, that I begin to encounter greater pressure. Right at the threshold itself, just before the break-through, that pressure can sometimes seem overwhelming.

How interesting that the Hebrew word for threshold captures this very idea. The word is caphaph (pronounced “sa-faf”). The word literally means “to wait at the threshold,” but it can also mean “to snatch away.” Those two definitions together tell a fascinating story. There we are, waiting at the threshold of a new spiritual place, hearing God’s invitation to come on in. Meanwhile, some devilish force is luring us backward, creating pressure against our progress. The enemy of our souls does not want us to make these moves from one room to the next and while he is always tempting us away from growth, it seems to be precisely at the doorways that he becomes most desperate and most forceful. I don’t think of the enemy as being particularly strategic so much as reactionary, so it makes sense that the real pressure would be at the threshold.

Years ago, a team from our church hosted a thing we call Cowboy Church in several inner-city settings. I was with one of those groups who ministered to about two dozen precious children who live pretty rough lives. I think the take-away image for me from that week was opening the door one night to the room in which I’d been working to find my husband, Steve, holding little D’Marcus by his armpits. Little D’Marcus had one foot on one door jam and the other foot on the other door jam, and he was screaming, “I don’t want to go in there!” And Steve was so patiently smiling and saying, “That’s fine … but we are going in there!” And you’d think that a kid being shoved into a room by his armpits would not bounce back but five minutes later, little D’Marcus was having the time of his life. The next day little D’Marcus was right there with us again. Evidently, it was the threat of a new room that most rattled him, not the reality of it.

I think of Steve holding D’Marcus by the armpits and I think of that passage in Isaiah where the prophet says, “In his love and mercy he redeems us. He lifts us up and carries us through all the years (italics mine).” And I wonder if God might have meant that kind of lifting sometimes? Because sometimes I think the way we get in there, into that next spiritual room where God is able to do a deeper work, happens less like the gentle lifting of a baby and more like the way Steve lifted little D’Marcus.

You know, probably, there is a little D’Marcus inside each of us, crying out against spiritual progress when we reach those doorways. It is the pressure of it that confuses us. It calls us backward, and because we don’t understand it we fight against it. Learning which voice is which becomes critical, so we can navigate these doorways when we reach them, so we can fight less against the Holy Spirit and press through to something new.

This is a very “Methodist” phenomenon — central to our doctrine of sanctification — but I’ve found the most help in understanding spiritual thresholds from Catholic mystics and Pentecostals.

Barbara Yoder writes this:

“Gates are where we win or lose. That is why Scripture uses gates as the place to be broken through. We must break through intimidation, faithlessness, fear, hopelessness, despair, or whatever else looms like an unconquerable foe at the gates. The threshold is where we either leap forward or back out. Yet once we leap, it is where we meet the incredible supernatural power of God to break through before us victorious over every obstacle. It is after we leap that we begin to possess our inheritance for the current season. It is where increase and abundance come in whatever dimension we are crossing over into. It is there we meet God in a way that is new.”

Is it possible that the resistance you sense in your life right now is actually an indication that you are ready to move forward into a new spiritual room? And that God is inviting you into greater life, more life … maybe even wanting to push you through from death to life? Here’s the kicker to this whole concept. The right response is not to fight, but to do nothing. The mystics have the best advice on this: “To fight these storms directly is to rivet our attention on them or on ourselves suffering them, rather than on God” (The Spiritual Journey, p 113). Rather than fight, we should simply let God lead. “What God wants us to do is to undergo them, suffer them, let them run their course,” Nemeck advises. Let God’s power do the work. The only part we play is to cling to Christ, who owns that power. He will finish this work, pull us through, force open the door if necessary. And once we’re on the other side, we will find the joy we receive is worth it.

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How to bring a Sabbath spirit into your life

The problem with the Israelites was that even long after their bodies were out of Egypt, their minds were still enslaved. In that way, they were sort of like a dry drunk. Have you heard the term? That is someone who has managed to stop drinking and even stay sober over time, but who still has the mentality of an alcoholic or addict. They may be sober but they have the mind of a drunk with all its old emotions, old cravings, old behaviors.

As it turns out, to be taken out of slavery doesn’t automatically make a person free. Listen: I can be in the desert with Egypt behind me and still have the mind of a slave. Freedom is a transformation we have to choose, and Sabbath-keeping is one way we can reject an enslaved mentality. Sabbath is a call to rest. Rest is the biblical corrective to our inclination toward escape. It is the habit of a free person, so God gave the Israelites (and everyone since) a weekly invitation to practice our freedom. Every day, we can bring a little Sabbath spirit into our lives as a way of rejecting the culture of Egypt. Here’s how:

Take a little time every day for a conversation with God. Every day, God invites us into a personal inventory, so we can examine our lives and realign ourselves with God’s design. I love how The Message version phrases this in Psalm 139. David writes (Psalm 139:23):

“Investigate my life, O God, find out everything about me; cross-examine and test me, get a clear picture of what I’m about; See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong— then guide me on the road to eternal life.”

This is the recipe for a rich inner conversation with the Holy Spirit. It is about slowing down enough to weigh our motives and repent of those that are self-centered, unholy, unhelpful. And I have to tell you: as much as we love multi-tasking, this isn’t that. This kind of examination doesn’t happen behind a steering wheel on the way to work. For this, we must learn how to be still and know God.

Take a little more time every week to restore your factory settings. When your computer freezes up and you don’t know why, what do you do? Reboot. Think of a weekly Sabbath as a day when you turn everything off so you can reboot. Sabbath-keeping is about getting back to the other side of Genesis 3, to remind ourselves we are not slaves. It is about loving God and loving others, about laying our head on God’s chest and listening to his heart.

When it comes to Sabbath-keeping, I am probably more closely akin to a spiritually dry drunk than to a sober saint. To be honest, I’m not even always dry. My Sabbath is Saturday. In theory. I seem to take some kind of secret pleasure in the thought that I work even when I am not supposed to. It is one of those efficiency and productivity lies I bought into years ago. It took far too long to occur to me that by buying the lie I might be working against God’s plan for my life. Somehow I guess I expected God to cover for me and for all my significant relationships while I played the efficiency and productivity game. But there is nothing biblical about that mindset. Sabbath is not just about getting a day off. It is about getting our lives back in line with God’s design. It is about faithfulness. It is about relationship.

Take a little more time every once in a while to renew your life’s vision. This was the advice of God to his people in Leviticus 25. He gave them a recipe for occasional sabbaticals that not only gave people an extended rest, but gave the land a rest. Every once in a while, you just need to give it rest for a season, to replenish the soil before it gets completely depleted. It is yet one more way to restore things to their original purpose.

I can think of all kinds of reasons why we need a whole season every once in a while. We need it because sometimes it takes more than a day to readjust our speed. We need it because sometimes it takes more than a week to change a habit. We need it so we can put a period at the end of one season before starting another one. I’m thinking right now of the need for some folks to stop doing good things for a season, so their spirit can fill back up. I believe the most successful lives are shaped intentionally by this kind of time to rest and refocus.

Take a regular inventory of those whose debts need to be forgiven by you. We also hear this message in Leviticus 25, in the description of the Jubilee year when slaves are returned to their original owners and land is restored to the families that first settled there. The Jubilee year isn’t so much about ceasing work as it is restoration of right relationships. I believe Sabbath-keeping can include time to sort through relationships and make amends where necessary. This, too, is a kind of rest.

Spiritual transformation is not just behavior change. It is heart-level change, relational change, spiritual change … even change in the way we approach our future. It is the kind of change that makes what is ahead more important than what is behind. It is ultimately the pathway to freedom, the mark of which is the ability to rest in God.

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