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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Lord, bend us.

In 1903, Evan Roberts was 25 years old. He was a Christian, coal miner, and student who began to pray for God to fill him with the Holy Spirit. In the midst of this season of prayer, Roberts found himself at an evangelistic event where a man named Seth Joshua was preaching. Roberts heard Joshua pray, “Lord, bend us,” and at the sound of those words the Holy Spirit grabbed him.

That’s what you need, the Spirit said.

Roberts wrote: “I felt a living power pervading my bosom. It took my breath away and my legs trembled exceedingly. This living power became stronger and stronger as each one prayed, until I felt it would tear me apart. My whole bosom was a turmoil and if I had not prayed it would have burst … I fell on my knees with my arms over the seat in front of me. My face was bathed in perspiration, and the tears flowed in streams. I cried out, ‘Bend me, bend me!!’ It was God’s commending love which bent me … what a wave of peace flooded my bosom … I was filled with compassion for those who must bend at the judgement, and I wept. Following that, the salvation of the human soul was solemnly impressed on me. I felt ablaze with the desire to go through the length and breadth of Wales to tell of the savior.”

After that experience, Evan would wake up at one in the morning and pray for hours, invaded by an intense love of God and a deep desire to see others come to Christ. He began to pray together with a few others: “Bend us, Lord.”

A few weeks later, after seeing a vision of God touching Wales, he predicted a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit. He began preach across Wales and within about nine months, over 100,000 people had come to Christ. Five years later, reports say 80,000 of those people were still in church. The effect on the culture of the country was profound. Bars emptied out. People used the money to buy clothes and food for their families, pay back debts and give to the church. People became kinder; there was a wave of forgiveness.

Sadly, Evan, didn’t last. Like firewood that wasn’t ready for burning, his own personal fires fizzled quickly. Losing his mental health, he became arrogant and short-tempered; his sermons filled with condemnation. He moved in with a woman who distorted his message. He spent a year confined to bed, pretty close to insane. He lived to be 72 years old but preached his last sermon when he was in his twenties.

Lord, bend us.

David Thomas has studied great awakenings and revivals and has written: “There is this built-in self-correcting, reanimating capacity in the Christian movement due to the Spirit’s residence in the Church. Christian history is in many ways the story of successive seasons of awakening. We love it. We yearn for it. We need it, desperately, more every day — in our culture, in our churches, in our families, in ourselves. We want to be in on awakening, to be in on a work of God in our day. Again, we have a soft spot for this, a longing for this: we want to be about sowing for a great awakening. But what about that sowing piece? … Where does it come from? Where does awakening start? How do we sow for a great awakening? … I’ve come to believe that the true seedbed of awakening is the plowed-up hearts of men and women willing to receive the gift of travail. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy (as it says in Psalm 126). Prayer is the precursor to the work of God … always the anticipating act of awakening.”

Lord, bend us.

Thomas says that a call to travailing prayer isn’t a call to feel guilty about how little we actually pray. It is a call to become more open to awakening, and to let that desire make us less casual in our prayers. “I wonder what it would take for us to move in the direction of travailing prayer,” Thomas writes. “How bad it will have to get … if we’re not there already?”

I wonder, too. Who among us is ready to take God at his word? Who is ready to spend time in repentance, time in surrender, time in confession of faith? Who is willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to be moved to their knees?  Who is ready to cry out, not just for ourselves, but for the effectiveness of the Church, for the effectiveness of the gospel flowing through us, for the gospel’s power to renew the world?

Lord, bend us!

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The bad news about exile (or, why vision matters)

Imagine you are born wearing a pair of yellow-tinted sunglasses (this analogy on how we encounter new cultures comes from Michael Mercil). In addition to having arms and legs, eyes and hair, you are also born with these glasses that have a yellow tint to them and because of that everything you do, everything you process, everything you experience comes with a yellow tint.

Somewhere far off there are other people born with blue-tinted sunglasses. Everything they do, process, experience comes with a blue tint. For instance, let’s imagine that the glasses I wear are yellow-tinted and the glasses people living in Thailand wear are blue-tinted. Suppose I travel to Thailand to learn about their culture, wearing my yellow-tinted glasses. That will affect how I see their world. Of course, I could decide to put on a pair of blue-tinted glasses for visiting Thailand (so as to have a more authentic experience) but if I put those glasses on over my yellow ones, am I really getting an authentic view of that culture? Or just my view tinted by their view?

This same principle for experiencing cultures applies to how we experience things in general, and particularly how we experience the spiritual life. Because we are fallen people, we are born wearing a pair of internal glasses that tint how we see the world. That tint only intensifies as we age. Childhood wounds, rejection, loss … all those things further distort our perception of God’s design. We have taken on the sight of people wearing the “glasses” of spiritual exile.

This is the bad news about exile: it messes with your vision. When you’re in exile, you see everything through the lens of separation or rejection or loss, or whatever it is that exile has cheated you out of. Exile filters reality and to the extent that any of us lives outside the boundaries of the Kingdom of God, we are cursed with that distorted vision.

The redemption experience offered by Jesus Christ gives us a chance at a difference set of lenses. With these, we can actually begin to see the world as God’s sees it. Redemption glasses offer an entirely different worldview. But if we put those glasses on over our fallen ones, have we really changed anything?

Too often, this is the option we choose when we take on Christ and his worldview. Rather than completely changing our vision, we decide to superimpose his glasses over our exile glasses. We do that by refusing his healing, by not going after real transformation, by not taking on the mind of Christ. Which means that in the most important ways, we still don’t get the culture of the Kingdom.

When our wounds are the result of generational brokenness — passed down to us from parent to child over generations — we may not even realize that the lenses through which we filter the world are “exile” lenses. We may not consciously realize that our choices, relationships, failures and successes are all sifted through lenses that distort God’s design for us. And even if we have chosen to follow Jesus, we may still be wearing our old glasses beneath our new ones. We may even long for a more familiar life, even an enslaved one.

How do we shed our exile glasses in favor of a more thoroughly transformed Kingdom vision? Three thoughts:

Acknowledge your exile. The first step in any recovery process is to acknowledge what is. You can’t remove glasses you don’t believe are there. Acknowledge your exile, your distance from God and his design. Start with what is.

Get the map. To get out of exile, you need a plan and a path. Who will hold you accountable? Who will walk you toward healing? How will you engage the community of Christ so you aren’t overcome by the temptation to turn back toward slavery? Get a plan. Get a group around you. Get healing. It is your freedom you’re after; take responsibility for it.

Immerse yourself in a Kingdom community. I’m confident that community is essential for sustaining progress. Healing happens in relationship, not in a vacuum. Lean into your community and trust the voices of fellow travelers. Isolation will only return you to exile.

It won’t do to pretend we can wear a cultural tint over our redemption. If we’re going to get a vision for the in-breaking Kingdom, we must take off the glasses of exile and commit ourselves to a view of the promised land.

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How to dampen a spiritual fire

The Wales revival broke out in 1903 and fizzled by 1905. During those two years, people came from all over the world to swim in those revival waters and that spirit went back with them when they went home. One of those people was a man named Frank Bartleman. He was a preacher and journalist in Los Angeles who began to write about revival and about what was happening in Wales. He had written Evan Roberts to ask for prayer. Roberts answered him; Bartleman believed the prayer in the return letter came with the gift of faith. It was for him part of the stirrings of a movement in California. He wrote that the spiritual movement he sensed in California was “rocked in the cradle of little Wales. … Los Angeles seems to be the place and this the time, in the mind of God, for the restoration of the Church.”

About that same time (1906), William Seymour was being raised up under the discipleship of Lucy Farrow in Houston, Texas. Both of them were taught by a guy named Charles Parham, known today as the father of the Pentecostal movement. Parham led a seminary and invited Seymour to become a student there. Seymour was black and in that day, having him in a white school was highly unusual. But Parham saw something in Seymour. Listening through the window of Parham’s classroom, Seymour fanned the flames of his calling and began to preach. Before long, he gained the attention of some folks in Los Angeles, who invited him to come and be their pastor.

Seymour went, and the short end of the story is that he started preaching in L.A. and people started coming. It was a small group at first, but as the Spirit moved the house where he was staying began to be packed nightly. Parham invited his old mentor, Lucy Farrow, to come and preach about the Holy Spirit and all Heaven broke loose

It is no small thing that the Pentecostal movement was born out of the ministries of a white man, a black man and a woman, all three preaching what Seymour called, “old-time repentance, old-time pardon, old-time sanctification, old-time power over devils and diseases, and the old-time ‘Baptism with the Holy Ghost and fire.”

Frank Bartleman, the L.A. journalist, followed Seymour and wrote this about his ministry: “Divine love was wonderfully manifest in the meetings. They would not even allow an unkind word said against their opposers or the churches. The message was ‘the love of God.’ It was a sort of ‘first love’ of the early church returned. The ‘baptism,’ as we received it in the beginning, did not allow us to think, speak or hear evil of any man. The Spirit was very sensitive, tender as a dove.”

After outgrowing the house Seymour lived in, the church rented a building at 312 Azusa Street. That address is still famous today in Pentecostal circles. Millions of Pentecostals would say that their spiritual birthplace is Azusa Street and dozens of denominations trace their roots to that revival.

As with too many spiritual movements, it was human brokenness that stopped the flow of the Spirit on Azusa Street. The organization beneath the movement had its share of dysfunction. Too much enthusiasm and too little structure led to infighting and jealousies. Along the way, someone got mad with someone else and ended up leaving and taking the mailing list with them. Without a mailing list, there was no way to get the word out about meetings. When the crowds stopped coming, the revival waned.

As J.D. King has written in his article about this revival in Charisma Magazine, the real lesson from Azusa Street is that revivals rarely end because of conflicts outside the walls, and more often because of conflicts within.

That is a sobering thought. To think that the attitude we bring into the Body of Christ could actually stifle the flow of the Holy Spirit and the growth of a movement should cause all of us to examine our hearts.

As part of a spiritual community, I must ask myself: is my attitude stoking the fire, or is it “water in the wood”? Am I contributing to the health and spiritual awakening of my community, or am I dampening the spiritual fires because I’d rather have it my way or not at all?

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How to start a fire

Do you know how a log catches fire? There is more to it than meets the eye. To get the log to “catch,” it has to be heated to a temperature sufficient to evaporate the water within the wood. The bigger it is, the more heat the process takes. The wetter the wood, the longer it takes.

The wood won’t “catch” until the water within it burns off.

And what happens with wood happens with people. I notice that people tend to want spiritual fire to happen instantaneously. We pray for revival like it can sneak up and catch us without us noticing. Or we pray for personal renewal like God is going to zap us with it without warning. But that thing that happens with wood — that process of heating the log to burn away the water before the log will ignite — is probably a more accurate picture of how big revivals and personal renewals actually happen. Not overnight, but over time. Not by surprise but by design. There is a season of heating up. There is spiritual preparation.

The stuff that dampens our spirits has to burn off before there is enough heat to “catch.”

Try to light a wet log and you’ll end up frustrated. Try to start a spiritual fire before the heat is there to sustain it and you will end up frustrated. You can also do a lot of damage.

I don’t agree with the whole message but I like the title of a sermon written by Gilbert Tennent, an evangelist who traveled with George Whitefield. Tennent talks about “the danger of unconverted ministry” — of leading a ministry when he or she is not spiritually prepared. Gilbert says, “an unconverted minister is like a man who would teach others to swim before he has learned himself, and so is drowned in the act, and dies like a fool.”

In my years as a pastor, I’ve witnessed it more than once. It is that pastor who fails to take his own soul seriously. The same year Mosaic started, our Annual Conference birthed ten new churches. Thirteen years later, only three remain. Not all were the pastor’s fault. Some churches never “ignited.” But some pastors also left the ministry and two of them had affairs.

Friends, there is nothing more dangerous than going after a spiritual fire when there is too much “water in the wood.” Perhaps this is why Jesus told his followers (Luke 24:49): “Stay here … until the Holy Spirit comes and fills you with power from heaven.” We want to focus on the part where Jesus promises a filling of the Holy Spirit. But I would not be surprised to learn that Jesus himself emphasized the word, “Stay,” when he was talking to his followers. Because he knew better than anyone just how dangerous it is to get out beyond the covering of the Spirit.

This is what separates the crazy from the courageous in spiritual work. It is not the Holy Spirit (because let’s be real here: some of the most spirit-filled people also look the most crazy). What separates the crazy from the courageous is that ability to “stay here,” to wait for Jesus to prepare the wood before trying to start a fire.

This is why we preach spiritual disciplines over and over and over. These are the things that dry out the wood. Spiritual disciplines prepare our souls for fire. Scripture, prayer, group life, worship, confession, accountability — this is how we prepare the wood for the fire. Not preparing ourselves is how we build dysfunctional lives and dysfunctional communities.

And this is why repentance is so important. This is why Jesus began his own ministry on that word: “Repent.” Because he knew that you can’t start a fire with wet wood. Repentance is the heat that burns off the water and makes the conditions right for awakening.

The fire triangle is what they call the three conditions that must be in play for a fire to burn: heat, oxygen and fuel (some kind of combustible material). If our spirits are the fuel and the Holy Spirit is the oxygen, then repentance is the heat that creates the conditions necessary for the life of Jesus to live itself out in me.

Listen: Repentance is not about behavior management; it is about changing my spiritual condition so I can catch fire.

Repentance clears the way for the Holy Spirit to do his work so if you’re ready to start a fire … start there.

 

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