Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

Indirect training?

In the past few days, I have once more recognized how pervasive the problem of pornography is – even among missionaries. A heart-wrenching conversation a week ago, a courageous email this week – all remind me of what J.D. Payne refers to as the pornification of society in Pressure Points: Twelve Global Issues Shaping the Face of the Church.

Payne writes,

“I was surprised to hear they felt that pornography is now a major issue in the church as well as among potential missionary candidates. Many are now assuming—especially among men—that missionary candidates have used pornography unless told otherwise. When such an expectation—particularly within the church—is commonplace, we find ourselves living in a pornified society.”

This week, I was reading about Jesus’ temptations in the desert in Matthew 4.  By refusing to use his power as the Son of God to satisfy his own desires for food, fame and authority, he was maintaining his commitment to the plan to abase himself and surrender himself to suffer and die for his people. But this passage also reminded me of something I had read a few days before, from Mike Breen’s “Multiplying Missional Leaders.”

Breen used Jesus’ first temptation as an example of how to overcome the temptation of pornography. He says that our appetites are one of the things that define us, and by fasting, Jesus was addressing one of those appetites. By saying “no” to one of his appetites, he was developing the ability to say “no” to all of them. When he was faced with the temptation to make bread out of stones, he was developing the spiritual muscles (Hebrews 5:7-8) to say “no” to a temptation three years later to call on legions of angels to save him in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:53-54).

I will copy and paste a longer section from Breen’s book where he talks about this temptation and how it can be applied to pornography:

When the Devil came to tempt Jesus, the first thing he said was, “If you’re the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” He was going after the appetite issue. The enemy attacked Jesus in the area of appetite because our appetites give us a sense of who we are by the definition of need. So needs are a component of how we understand who we are.

There are fundamental appetites — appetites for food, sex, shelter, sustenance, nurture, and more. These are fundamental aspects that are trigger mechanisms within the human heart, and they are actually all good things. 

By fasting alone in the wilderness, Jesus was addressing one of his appetites — the appetite for food. By saying no to one of his appetites, Jesus was dealing with what is necessary to being able to say no to all of them. 

A really holy man who leads the Nigerian revival, Enoch Adeboye, said to me one time, long ago, “You know, the church really needs to learn how to fast in Britain. Really, they need to fast so they can say no to certain things so that God can remove the resistance within them to his power.” 

I asked him to explain this further. 

He said, “Appetites are like children. If you don’t say no to any of them, you’ll find yourself overrun. If you learn to say no to one of them, they all hear that, see that, and know that the Spirit working in you is creating the capacity to say no to all of them. And actually, by saying no to one of them, you empower yourself to say no to all of them.” 

If there is an appetite in your life that is not controlled, very often the way to deal with it is through indirect effort. Spiritual giants throughout the ages attest to this. Spirituality is usually through indirect effort. Dallas Willard puts it this way: “Say no to the things that you can so you can learn to say no to the things that you can’t.”

Indirect effort is fundamental to athletic training these days. Swimmers spend far more time in the gym than they ever have before, training muscles that don’t appear to have a lot to do with what’s necessary for swimming. But that’s what prepares them for success. It’s indirect effort.

A lot of times over the years, I’ve spoken with young guys who have dealt with struggles of pornography, which at this point has reached such levels of infiltration that it’s an epidemic. I mean it’s everywhere. It’s almost impossible not to struggle with it. How do you deal with it? It’s an appetite. Your body and all of your wiring tell you that you need this. So you have to be able to say no to that need.

But if you simply try saying no to that need directly, it doesn’t quite work. It seems to have a certain power over us. So you learn to empower your capacity to say no by dealing with another appetite that is more easily targeted, such as food, through fasting.

For some, food is the appetite you can’t say no to. So you need to say no the TV or the iPod in the car. It can be whatever it is for you. Find the place where you can deal with the issue of saying no. Appetite is going to be an area where our enemy tries to undermine our identity because he knows it is such a fundamental need.

This concept of using indirect means to strengthen our capacity to say “no” to a specific temptation intrigues me.  But I can’t say that I have a lot of experience with it.  Saying “no” to any legitimate desire seems very foreign to our materialistic and narcissistic culture. And using an indirect method, rather than tackling the problem head-on also clashes with our Western straight-to-the-point, no-beating-around-the-bush attitude toward leadership and problems. But it does help us understand what the writer of Hebrews was saying when he noted that Christ “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).

Probably my most significant experience with this principle has been in maintaining a consistent exercise program, which has resulted in more discipline in other areas of life as well, such as in what and how much I eat. More recently, disciplining myself to get up and run the miles in training for a half-marathon has given me the confidence and resolve to tackle other more difficult assignments in my life and ministry.

How have you used indirect methods to strengthen your ability to overcome temptations in your areas of weakness?


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1 Comment

  1. Jack Gilbert

    I think fasting is greatly lost as a discipline in western society. I know that I have not consistently practiced it myself, but this year I have made an effort to make it a regularly practiced discipline. What is interesting is how I have reacted to fasting. In the beginning it was hard and I found myself getting “hangry.” This bothered me because I didn’t want to practice a spiritual discipline only to act in a unspiritual manner. So I prayed about it. What I found is that I began to have better self control, thanks to the Holy Spirit.

    To add to this concept of saying no, I think we must supplement it with saying yes. Jesus said no to food in the wilderness, but he said yes to following God’s will (the baptism just prior and no doubt the worship and pray he had in the desert).
    In acts we see the church fasting praying and worshiping, and from that we get the commissioning of Paul and Silas. In other words, instead of looking at fasting as refraining, we ought to look at fasting as a great exchange. We say no for a time to something that is good in order to say yes for something that is better. “I have food you know nothing about,” Jesus said. May we all learn to be so satisfied by the riches of God’s yeses.

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