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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This year, stop being who you were.

Think about it: If Mary had been engaged to a guy with a drinking problem and a couple of failed marriages, we probably wouldn’t be reading about her or her husband today. Joseph was chosen for the role of custodial parent just as surely as Mary was chosen for the role of Christ-bearer because he was a righteous man. He, too, was a virgin (not just Mary), a guy with integrity who chose a holy woman to be his wife and who treated her with respect even when she presented him with more questions than answers.

Overnight, Joseph went from being a small-town businessman with a fiancee and what I assume was a solid family home to being a refugee and a scandal who spent years outrunning a corrupt ruler who wanted his son dead. Joseph teaches me that if I want to be part of a story bigger than myself, I have to stop being who I was (even if who I was, was perfectly respectable) so I can go with God.

I have been asking the Lord to raise up men of God in our community with the heart of Joseph — men willing step into a bigger story. I guess what I’m really praying for is men willing to stop being who they were, so they can become who God intends. How does one do that, exactly … whether you are a man or a woman?

Here are a few of my first thoughts on how to stop being who you were:

Stop listening to the wrong voices (and start listening to the right ones).

If you are not already clear on how God speaks into your life, stop everything and figure that out. Remember that Joseph was able to walk out the early days of Jesus’ life and keep that child alive because of his ability to hear from God. And my suspicion is that those prophetic dreams — to marry the pregnant girl, to escape to Egypt — were not his first. Knowing what I know about how God works, I suspect Joseph already had a habit of hearing through dreams and God already knew he had Joseph’s ear when he spoke in that way. Deeply faithful people tend to know the voice of God, and have practiced listening over years. If you don’t already know how God gets your attention, that is worth figuring out; otherwise, you will be sidetracked too often by the wrong voices.

Stop wasting time (and start reading your Bible).

Where are you spending your time? It doesn’t make sense to spend hours and hours online, reading or listening to political commentary, while you go for days, weeks or months without opening your Bible. At least, it doesn’t make sense to do that and then wonder why you don’t sense God’s presence in your life. I read this someplace and it really resonated: You can’t create and consume at the same time. If what you’re wanting to create is a deeper relationship with Jesus and a more disciplined prayer and scripture life, you won’t get there with a habit of wasting time surfing everything except the Bible. We all need a little downtime, but we could all also stand to be a little more honest about where the bulk of our time goes. I can tell you this from personal experience: my prayer life improved dramatically the day I took all social media apps off my phone. In 2018, stop wasting time on everyone else’s daily life and start being intentional about yours.

Stop fighting the wrong battles (and start fighting the right ones).

Paul reminds us that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil. To the extent that I focus on the wrong enemies, I will waste time and energy and can even play into the real enemy’s hands. To put it another way, our real enemies almost never have skin on.

Think about Joseph’s choices. He moved his family to Egypt to protect his son while untold numbers of children were killed. It took serious faith to stay the course, knowing others would be hurt by Herod’s evil actions. Joseph didn’t get sidetracked by a broken man’s foolishness. He kept his focus on spiritual realities and God’s plan. His job was to bring Jesus safely into adulthood. Knowing his call kept him from being distracted by other battles.

(Side note: Our job, also, is to bring Jesus into adulthood … our adulthood.)

Stop imitating others (and start imitating Jesus).

It really never occurred to me until this Christmas season that Joseph and Mary were the first followers of Jesus. They were the first to let him change their lives. They believed he was God’s redeemer for a lost and hurting world, and they went to great lengths to make sure the world knew that. In a very real sense, it wasn’t Jesus who became like his custodial dad, but Joseph who became like his son. He is a great example to us of what can happen when a person stops being who they were so God can write them into a bigger story.

If that is your heart for 2018, may you have courage to stop being who you were so you can become all God intends you to be.

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