Where's Your Focus?

What does the voice in your head sound like?

C’mon . . . I know you have one. It’s not about talking to yourself or about admitting to the “voices in your head,” but about the one inner voice you’ve had for as long as you can remember. It’s probably the voice you hear up there as you’re reading this. Or, maybe it’s the voice that’s about to say, “what is this guy even talking about?”

Yeah, that one.

We all have an inner voice, but you know who doesn’t? The absolute rest of God’s creation. From everything scientists can tell, other animals don’t really think about what they’re doing before they do it – at least, not like humans do. Dog sees a treat. Dog eats the treat. The dog might hesitate if there’s danger in the way, but it’s not going to count the Weight Watcher points, think about beach season or wonder later if they really should’ve indulged.

In the same way, a tree doesn’t think about growing. A rock doesn’t think about . . . uh, rocking.

The Latin name for humans is actually related to this very point: Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Some simply translate that, “The very wise man,” but that’s not quite right. It literally means, “The man who knows that he knows.” Or, even clearer, it can mean, “the man who thinks about his thinking.”

When God breathed into Adam and gave him (and thus all of us) a rational soul, it sparked within mankind the ability not only to think about our actions, but also to examine our own thoughts. It is a tremendous gift, but . . . like everything sin touches, it can also be a tremendous burden.

I’ll ask again. What does the voice in your head sound like?

For many, the voice in their head sounds a lot like a narrator voiceover in a TV show about their life. Our inherent narcissism paints us as the lead character in our very own sitcom with everyone else either as a supporting role or as the villain.

At other times, our inner voice sounds like the scene in a court room drama. Satan whispers about our innumerable wrongs and we either tell ourselves stories to defend our actions (to an audience of one, no less) or we play prosecutor and wrack ourselves with guilt.

In either of those scenarios, it’s clear that we’ve taken a tremendous gift of God and done what mankind always does with God’s good and gracious gifts – we’ve ruined them by making it all about us.

There’s actually a fancy Latin term for that as well, incurvates in se. Literally, “curved inward on oneself.” Saint Augustine was likely the first to use the term, but it later gained quite a bit of traction in the works of Martin Luther who was both a fan of Augustine in general (being a member of the Augustibiab Order as a monk) but also the concept that so much of our problems in life have to do with being too preoccupied on ourselves.

In his “Lectures on Romans,” Luther wrote:

“Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin being so deeply curved ib on itself (incurvates in se) that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them, as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites, or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.”

This is our human condition in a nutshell. What does the voice in our head sound like? It sounds self-obsessed, self-absorbed and unable to really diagnose the condition of anything outside of our immediate wants and needs.

The English idiom, “navel-gaze” is related to this concept as well, and that’s a pretty solid picture for the life of a human—so curved in on oneself that we not only can’t see the forest for the trees, we can’t even see the trees past our own belly buttons.

This presents a huge problem in how we deal with the sin in our life.

One of Satan’s greatest weapons is isolating a sinner within his sin. Our natural inclination to think only of ourselves makes his assaults so much easier. And so, what starts as a seemingly harmless impulse or as toeing the line between right and wrong leaves us alone, broken and in a metaphorical (or perhaps literal) fetal position too curved in on ourselves to be of any use to anyone, let alone ourselves.

It plays out in the moment. “This sin can’t hurt anyone,” we tell ourselves. Of course, miles down life’s road, that same sin can be remembered as the start of a painful, destructive process. A little foresight would be nice, but we were too busy being curved in on ourselves and thinking only of what we wanted.

Even more dangerously, this plays out in how we deal with guilt and shame . . . internalizing over and over and over again. Making not only the sin about us, but also the punishment and forgiveness all about how we feel in any given moment.

God, save us from this!

He has.

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains,” Psalm 121 says. “Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” 

This Psalm of Ascents was written to be sung as worshippers were on their way up to the Temple, built on a literal mountain (Mount Zion). It’s also, traditionally, a Psalm used by the Christian Church in Lent—a time where we are encouraged to think soberly about our heart’s condition and where we have more muted praise as we ponder our Lord’s passion.

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains . . .” Is there anything more powerful than the picture of a sinner finally straightening up to focus on something other than themselves? This, of course, is not done by our own power, but only through Jesus’ sacrifice and by the work of the Holy Spirit.

As we fit our eyes to the mountains, we focus on Mount Calvary where Jesus paid the full atonement for all sin—large, small, habitual, life-damaging, relationship-ruining and the like. As we look for the solution in ourselves, God straightens us up and our weary eyes learn to focus on his son, a solution that was there all along.

And, so, we fix our eyes on yet another mountain, Mount Zion once again. This time, as a picture of Heaven used over and over throughout scripture, a Heaven that is yours, a Heaven that is already won for you, a Heaven that is full of the richest pleasures we could never find within ourselves.


Author: Michael Schottey, Palm Coast, Florida

Love that won't disappoint

Valentine’s Day was awesome.

You know, back in the second grade when you had the parties at the end of the school day. When you passed out the fun Looney Tunes Valentines to all your classmates. When you got to consume loads of sugar.

You remember those Valentine’s Days? They were great!

And then you get older. And Valentine’s Day changes. And it becomes more complex. They can still be great, but they certainly become different.

If you’re single on Valentine’s Day, you get tired of hearing about everyone else’s plans. Perhaps you put on a brave face and act like it doesn’t bother you, but deep down, it stings. Deep down, you wish you had plans as well.

If you’re dating or married, there’s pressure to make sure this day is special. There’s pressure to live up to some sort of standard. You don’t want to let your significant other down.

Social media has added another layer to this. You see the Facebook and Instagram posts of friends and acquaintances of all these “perfect” Valentine’s Days.

When it comes to Valentine’s Day, it’s easy to stress out. It’s easy to covet. It’s easy to be envious of other relationships. At the end of it all, it can even feel like a letdown.

And here is where the devil often likes to strike.

This is often the time the devil will tempt you to turn to a convenient lover.  A lover that he says won’t let you down. This lover is there for you when nobody else wanted to spend Valentine’s Day with you. This lover is there for you when your significant other lets you down. This is, of course, how the devil makes this lover look. This lover, of course, is pornography. But despite how tempting the devil makes this lover look, all it ever does is let you down. All it does is bring guilt and shame.

As Valentine’s Day comes and goes, I encourage you to assess the situation that you’re in. The concept of love and relationships will be everywhere. It will be on television, social media, at the store, and many other places.

Assess your relationship status. 

If you’re single. rejoice! Celebrate the blessing that is and recognize all the blessings in life that come from that.

If you’re dating, rejoice! Celebrate the relationship you have as you learn what you want in a future spouse. Know that Valentine’s Day will be unique to you.

If you’re married, rejoice! Celebrate the love that your spouse gives and see all the strengths your spouse brings to your relationship.

Whether you are single, dating, or married, you are able to rejoice and recognize all the blessings in life.

You are able to do that because of Christ. You are able to do that because your most important status is secure. You are a redeemed child of God!

In (Jesus) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins . . . (Ephesians 1:7).

Jesus went to the cross, gave his life, shed his blood . . . for you. Jesus went to the cross to wash away your sins. Jesus went to the cross to redeem you, and make you his child. Jesus accomplished that, and that will never change.

It is finished (John 19:30).

Because you are a child of God, you have a purpose. God has a plan for you. And no matter what your earthly situation is, you get the opportunity to thank and worship your God for all that he has done for you.

Brothers and sisters, I pray that you are able to assess your earthly relationship and identify where the devil may look to tempt you.

But I pray that you never lose sight of your status in Christ. The love that Christ has for you is incomparable to any earthly love.

You are forgiven. You are a redeemed child of God. You are loved by God.

And God’s love will never let you down. 


Author: Daniel Koch serves as the Staff Minister of youth and family ministry at Grace Lutheran Church in Crivitz, WI.

Clean

Clean Slate

We have reached the point in the new year where a third of the population who set a New Year’s resolution will have broken it. This is according to various studies, so take that for what it’s worth.

Personally, I have never been one to make a New Year’s Resolution. I do find it admirable to those who who do, however. It is a respectable thing to set goals and strive to reach those goals. Having goals can motivate us, and the new year is certainly a time to make new goals.

I pray that your new year has been one filled with blessings. I pray that you are able to reach those goals you set for yourself.

However, as noted above, we are weak. We are weak when it comes to pleasing our own sinful nature. We are weak to give in to the temptations of this world.

We are weak to lust. We are weak to satisfy our sexual cravings. We are weak to give in to pornography. As the apostle Paul said, “For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not keep doing what I want. Instead, I do what I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

Rather than feeling new, we are often feeling like the same old person.

 

Scapegoat

Obviously, we celebrate the new year once in a calendar year. For the Israelites of the Old Testament, one of the festivals they celebrated once a year was the Day of Atonement.

On this day, God commanded the high priest to carry out certain things. One of those duties was to take a goat, called the scapegoat. The high priest would confess “all the guilt of the people and all their sins” (Leviticus 16:21) and place that on the scapegoat. An appointed man would then take that goat and walk away from camp. They would walk until they were out of sight from the camp, and the man would release the goat into the wilderness, completely out of sight.

Here, God was teaching two things:

1) “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12)

2) One was coming to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Could you imagine watching that goat leave camp? What a feeling that must have been! Could you imagine placing all that guilt of your lust and porn on that goat and then watching it walk completely away?

While we don’t celebrate today with a goat, God gives us that same promise: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12)

Your sin and guilt are no longer a part of you. It is completely removed from you.

Psalm 103:12

And that brings us to number two.

The one promised to come. The one promised to make atonement has come and done just that.

Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Jesus was the sacrifice, taking all your sin and guilt on his shoulders when he went to the cross. Your sins are paid for. Your sins are atoned for. You are at one with God.

Jesus has “made us clean from all our sins” (Leviticus 16:30).

I pray that you have a blessed new year! I pray that God gives you the strength to reach the goals and resolutions that you have for yourself.

But above all, look to the One who has removed your guilt. Trust in the one who has taken away your sin. Praise the one who has made you clean.

In Christ, we are new – today and always.


Author: Daniel Koch serves as the Staff Minister of youth and family ministry at Grace Lutheran Church in Crivitz, WI.

A Date With The Holy Spirit

A Date With The Holy Spirit

Do you want someone around when you sin? Almost never, right?!

It’s almost as if our conscience finds a megaphone when it knows someone is there to witness what we are doing wrong. We don’t want our conscience to hurt so much. “Calm down,” we may tell ourselves. “No one will see me. No one will come in. No one knows about the thoughts I have. I can hide it.” But the conscience knows better.

You may hide them from some people for a little while, but can you really hide your sin from everyone?

Whether you want him around or not, the Holy Spirit knows your mind and its desires. Psalm 139:7 says, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” David sang those words with wonder. But do they frighten you?

It may seem like a good strategy, then, to always remember that the Holy Spirit is present with us. We can attempt to scare ourselves away from sin. You may have even heard someone comment about a frisky couple, “I hope they leave room for the Holy Spirit!” If we remind ourselves that God is always watching us, then we can avoid sin.

Those thoughts are certainly a good curb to sin, but is it the best overall strategy in our approach to sin?

Couple holding hands at table

If the Holy Spirit is with you on your date, or while you are alone, or in any moment of the day, how does that make you feel? Scared? Nervous? Guilty? Ashamed? Powerless? If so, that’s a work of the Holy Spirit and he’s good at it. Very good at it.

John 16:8 “(The Holy Spirit) will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin.”

Whether the Holy Spirit grabs a line of the law in the Bible or uses the divine law written in the hearts of every human being since Adam and Eve, his work is decisive. We stand alone. Convicted. Ashamed. Scared. We have offended God. That knowledge may certainly help us to avoid some sins some of the time, but it will never give us hope and positive desires.

The best work of the law only prepares us for the best work of the gospel.

1 Corinthians 6:11, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

The Holy Spirit’s work does not end with a soul crushing conviction. We find our hearts naturally tugging toward the rules as if they could relieve us. Do this. Don’t do that. Follow this. Go there. The list is a tempting source of hope! The plan is all laid out, step by step. If I only do this and this and this, then I will successfully escape.

Nope. As tempting as it may be, the list is always out of reach. Like reaching for apples high in the branches of a tall tree. So close, but so far!

Apple on a branch

Our hope lies in another tree . . . a tree as preposterous and ugly as one placed on Golgotha. And the Holy Spirit is eager to fill you with the fruit of that salvation. Fervently. silently, and passionately, he opens the Scriptures for us. With the message of Jesus, fear dissipates, shame turns to honor, and guilt hears the happy voice of an innocent man.

It is good that the Holy Spirit is here to work his miracles. The miracles continue with new desires – better desires – that the Holy Spirit creates in us. Instead of hesitance to be in the Holy Spirit’s presence, fearing his approach and being eager to push him out of mind, we want him to be with us! We want him to help us war against our sinful self. In fact, we want to keep up with the Holy Spirit in the battle for our soul!

Galatians 5:25, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

In the battle against sin, we want to travel the whole path of the Spirit’s work – from law to the gospel to its precious fruits. It’s tempting to stick with the law, but the law won’t fully help us on our eternal journey. The full and complete message of the Holy Spirit makes him pleasant company whether we are enjoying him alone or with other people.


Author: Nathan Schulte serves as a missionary in WELS missions in Latin America. He lives in Quito, Ecuador.

Don't Let Covid-19 become porn's pandemic

Don’t Let Covid-19 Become Porn’s Pandemic

Published originally April 2020

I wish the pastor’s text was wrong about porn.
A colleague of mine shared some recent data about the correlation between cases of Covid and the amount of traffic on the internet’s biggest pornography site. According to the study, from late February to mid-March, traffic spiked nearly 12%, a swooping upward curve that resembled the side of Mt. Everest. Even worse, in the 16 days since that study was released, global corona cases have quintupled.
That’s right—quintupled. Which means, in my unscientific analysis, there’s a lot of porn out there.
I should be upfront and let you know that I believe porn is a serial killer of God’s good gifts. Both through a ministry I serve (Conquerors throughChrist) and in a book I wrote (From Dirty to Dancing), I have tried to persuade people that pornography wrecks our bodies, our souls, our relationships, and our world.
Yet, I get it. I get why so many of us, even those of us who follow Jesus, would be so drawn to porn at a time like this.
In my studies on addiction, I have learned that five of the most tempting times to fall into destructive behaviors are when we feel…
  • Hungry
  • Angry
  • Lonely
  • Tired
  • Bored
Know anyone who feels like that these days?
The coronavirus has messed with our routines and structures, affecting our meal times and hunger levels. Our utter loss of control and feeble attempts to be productive with work while caring for kids makes us angry. Social distancing, despite technology’s blessings, has left us lonely. Staring at screens for double-digit hours makes us tired. And, even after watching every episode of The Tiger King, we are bored, our brains itching for some dopamine-releasing novelty to excite us again.
That is just the physical factors that might lead to porn use. Add to that the spiritual forces at work—The sinister part of our hearts that lusts for short-term pleasure. The world that loves to make a dollar off of us, no matter what the cost to our integrity or our relationships. The Devil who convinces us that no one has to know and no know has to get hurt.
So, I get the graph. It makes sense to me why so many people, even Spirit-filled people, would click where we shouldn’t.
Which begs the big question—How do we fight back against the pandemic of porn?
Here are the 5-Steps that have blessed many people pre-corona and are even more urgent today:
  1. Get Real about the Wreckage—Porn seems so innocent when it’s just you and a screen. Just a release. Just a way to pass the time. Just a way to explore your sexual desires. But porn is not innocent. We must, through scriptures, stories, and studies, get real about the wreckage that every click causes. Spouses are crushed when they discover the images. Children are trafficked as supply to meet the demand. Eternities are lost for those who turn their backs on God. Take off the filter and see porn as the hates-your-future enemy that it is.
  2. Get Back to God’s Grace—Porn may be worse than you thought, but Jesus is better than you believed. Run back to Jesus, cling to his cross, and know that he is the friend of sinners. Meditate on passages like Romans 8:1, 1 John 1:8-9, Romans 5:8, and Jeremiah 31:34, and be amazed at God’s grace for those who fall into sexual sin. Embrace your identity as a child of God through faith in this Savior. Let the message take root in your heart that you are not what you have done. You are who God says you are—his own, beloved, pure in his sight.
  3. Get Rid of Porn—As much as possible, cut off your access to porn. Delete apps, pictures, and videos that cause you to stumble. Be ruthlessly honest about the triggers that lead you down a road that has no u-turns. Ask a friend to password protect your devices from installing anything that wouldn’t be good for your soul. While there is no fool-proof way to get away from porn in our digital age, there are wise ways to give the Holy Spirit more time to snap you out of your porn-pursuing fog. Make sure porn is way more than 1-click away for those moments when you feel hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or bored.
  4. Get Accountable to Others—Nothing helps our self-control as much as the good news of God’s love and good people who love us. Deal with the embarrassment and tell someone about your struggles. Confess to a trusted friend or two, be honest about when/how/how often you sin, and ask for their prayers, encouragement, and love. Remind them to remind you of Jesus’ patient love for sinful people (you will need it). This is the biblical path to healing (James 5:16, Proverbs 28:13).
  5. Get Ready for Battle—Craft a battle plan to fight porn one day at a time. Memorize a Bible passage that has proven helpful in your struggle. Screen save a picture of Jesus that reminds you that he is better than the pleasures of porn. Install filtering software on your devices (I personally use Covenant Eyes). Go to war, so that this day ends invictory, not defeat.
If those 5 steps work for you today, repeat them tomorrow. And if they don’t “work,” repeat them anyway! They will keep you close to Jesus, his truth, and his grace. Nothing matters more than that.
Resisting sexual immorality has always been a challenge. That only got more challenging when corona changed our lives. But we have a God who is up to the challenge. Talk to your Father, look to his Son, and ask for his Spirit.
With his help, let’s make sure there’s only one pandemic among God’s people.

Author: Mike Novotny serves as CtC Chairman and pastor at the CORE in Appleton, WI

Another Miracle

Reaffirm Your Love

“He now realizes what he did was wrong and is really sorry about it.” Whether these words describe someone who has hurt you or your own heart’s confession, they are an important step in dealing with sin.

Jeremiah 17:9

I am often amazed at my own heart. It is so blind. It can easily read this verse from Jeremiah and nod happily in agreement. “Yes. The human heart is deceitful. I can think of a hundred examples. This person and that person. That group and that movement. Yes. They are all deceitful.” Yet, even as I deepen my understanding of the verse with those connections, I blindly forget my own heart’s deceitfulness. Nathan’s heart is also deceitful! Why does it take so long to realize it? I am so slow. Our deceitful hearts deceitfully blind us.

So, when someone realizes their sin and recognizes the evil that came from their own heart, and their own mouth, and their own mind, we want to rejoice. God’s word worked!

Jeremiah 23:29

The heart has been crushed. God worked a miracle–a heart sorrowful over its own sin.

But sometimes we stop there. It may seem like an appropriate place to end. If someone has betrayed you and hurt you, their newfound pain gives us hope. They finally opened their eyes. They realize they were hurting you. What you were hoping would happen has now happened. The impasse has been broken. Now we can get on to a healthier life. Or so we think.

But we stopped too soon. Time may heal some of the wounds through its passing, but what we need is another miracle.

The Apostle Paul writes, “I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him,” 2 Corinthians 2:8. God, in his wisdom, uses us to bring not only love and announcement of forgiveness to a repentant sinner, but he also uses our love to comfort the sorrowful sinner.

The Corinthian congregation was dealing with a sinner who repented and was deeply sorry for his sin. In fact, his sorrow was almost overwhelming him. God’s law had worked. Now it was time for the gospel. Reaffirm love.
But our community of believers needs the free flowing forgiveness that comes from God. We need it and others need it. And we need it repeatedly. Our hearts deceive us. We may know forgiveness. We may have grown up in churches and families which taught and proclaimed it regularly. However, in the dark sorrows of sin, we become disoriented and do not see it clearly.
Reaffirm love. Again and again and again. Why? Because we have One who has done the same for us.

Author: Nathan Schulte serves as a missionary in WELS missions in Latin America. He lives in Quito, Ecuador.

5 lessons from Colossians for accountability partners

5 Lessons From Colossians For Accountability Partners

I invite you to open up your Bible to Colossians 2:20–3:17 and take a few minutes to meditate on Paul’s words. If you have an accountability partner or you are an accountability partner, you may want to study this section of Scripture together the next time you meet. If you don’t already have the habit of reading the Bible together regularly, this little exercise can be a good first step.

A little background: Paul wrote this letter to a church he had not planted which was located in Asia Minor, which is modern day Turkey. Epaphras, one of the church leaders, had visited Paul in Rome because the Colossians Christians were apparently under attack from a false teaching that wanted to add to Jesus’ work. The implications of the false doctrine were that Jesus was not enough and the Colossians ended to do more. So, throughout the letter, Paul responded by presenting Jesus as the One who is above all and completely sufficient. Jesus is the best. You don’t need anything more. In this final section of the letter, Paul focuses on actions the Colossians Christians could pursue, but he never leaves the gospel far behind. Its motivation continues even into the application.

Please read Colossians 2:20–3:17 with this question in mind: What words, truths, and phrases would be good to remember when encouraging someone in their Christian life? Write them down. There are a lot! How do they change or strengthen the way you want to help people, especially your accountability partner?

Here are 5 points you may want to highlight:

1.  Mere rules don’t deeply change the heart.

Paul writes, “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” In conversations with ourselves or with others, we are tempted to jump to making lists of rules. We want to rely on the law. The law even excites us because what it offers seems within our reach. But Paul says, “They lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” If we want true change, we must start with the heart.

2. We are connected to Christ.

We have died and have been raised with Christ. Our life is now hidden within him. This reality is the heart change that we needed. Christ needs to remain the central element of our conversations about sin and forgiveness AND in our lives of gratitude. We don’t graduate from needing Christ. We grow deeper in him.

3. Death is painful and essential.

Paul shares a list of sins we struggle with and tells us to put them to death. He doesn’t say, “Put them aside for a while.” He doesn’t say, “Wean yourselves off these vices.” He says, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature.” And death is painful. These lusts, greed, immoralities, and evil desires don’t want to leave! They are happy where they are and want to take more control. Paul says, “Put them to death.”

4. Fill your heart with meaningful things.

Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love are the good things God wants us to clothe ourselves with. We don’t just want to rid ourselves of the evil; we want God’s good virtues to take their place. We strive toward these virtues. How does each one look in your life?

5. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.

God’s word keeps us connected to him as we live and encourage those around us. It is not fluff. God’s word is meant for our lives, no matter how tough they are. If we need admonishment, it is there. If we need forgiveness, it is there. If we need teaching, it is there. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.


Author: Nathan Schulte serves as a missionary in WELS missions in Latin America. He lives in Quito, Ecuador.