Beyond Symptoms: Getting to the root of our problems

What’s the root of your problem?

I ask because we’ve become a symptoms-focused culture. Maybe it’s always been this way, but it certainly is now. We look at a problem and gravitate toward addressing the most obvious symptoms while doing little for the disease.

I don’t have to look any further than a mirror to find a guilty party.

For instance, my wife and I adopted a couple of kittens about 14 months ago. They lived inside through their first winter, which spoiled them more than a little. They’ve been mostly outside cats since the spring and full-time outside cats since we got a new couch this summer.

Here’s the problem: Because we live in a wooded hillside area, our property is visited by any number of wild critters, including raccoons. These black-eyed bandits are fond of cat food, so they regularly make themselves at home on our back deck. One of my solutions has been to trap them (cat food makes great bait) and then release them several miles from our home. But God has provided a seemingly endless supply of raccoons in our woods, and I’m getting a bit tired of hauling them off.

The root of the problem is that raccoons will always find their way to this free and easy food source. The best solution, of course, is to limit their food supply by not leaving cat food outside after dark. It’s a hassle to remember, but much less of a hassle than becoming a taxi service for the area’s raccoon population.

Maybe we treat the symptoms because we don’t know of a cure for the disease. I can’t eradicate all raccoons or change their desire for cat food. Despite advances in modern medicine, doctors often can’t do much more than address the symptoms of our ailments. Or, maybe we know the cure — which is sometimes true in medicine — but we find it easier or more convenient to treat the symptoms and just live with the disease. That’s why we wear clothes that make us look a little thinner rather than eating healthy food and exercising. Or, maybe we focus on the symptom because it gives the appearance of progress. Perception is better than reality.

For the world to really get better, however, each of us needs to do the hard work of addressing the true root of our problems: We’re sinners.

We can mask that reality and find all sorts of ways to justify it or explain it away, but the truth of it will always gnaw at us and prevent us from living as we’re called to live.

How do we treat this disease? We call on the Great Physician and then follow His prescriptions. Only God can take away our sins. He’ll do it if we ask, but we still have to live as fallen creatures until He brings us home. In the meantime, we can treat our disease through obedience to Him. That includes disciplines like prayer, the study of His Word, fellowship and worship with other believers, and submission to His authority over every aspect of our lives.

Those things aren’t easy, but they are essential to our spiritual health.

Treating the symptoms of our spiritual illness isn’t a bad thing, it’s just incomplete. We don’t have to do one or the other; we can address both at the same time. But if we never address the root of the problem, we’ll spend the rest of our lives treating symptoms that only get worse over time.

On the base paths to repentance

We don’t have many high-profile role models these days when it comes to genuine repentance, but I may have come across one last week thanks to a social media link shared by former Major League star Torii Hunter. The link took me to a video by Dee Gordon, one of those up-and-coming professional athletes who was riding the wave of his talent and hard work until he tripped over his own poor choices.

That’s not breaking news, of course. Celebrities (including sports stars) fall off their pedestals so frequently that we hardly notice. It’s like politicians telling lies – we don’t condone it, but we’ve come to expect it.

In this video, however, Gordon did something I rarely see from celebrities in his situation – he apologized. I’m not talking about the typical PR-driven, carefully crafted written apology that tends to admit nothing, blame others, and promise no change. I’m talking about what appears to be a real, heartfelt apology that’s born of repentance and leads to true forgiveness.

I don’t know much about Gordon. I know he plays second base for the Miami Marlins. I know he’s a really good player – a Gold Glove winner on defense who he led the National League in hitting (.333 average) and stolen bases (58) in 2015. I know he’s 28 and looks like he’s about 18. And I know he was suspended for 80 games after he tested positive for using performance-enhancing drugs.

If you dig a little deeper into his story, you find that Gordon probably just wasn’t careful enough about knowing what was in the supplements he was taking. At 185 pounds, he’s known for speed, so it’s not like he was bulking up to hit more home runs. But he didn’t make excuses or blame others. He owned the mistake.

I don’t know if he’s a follower of Jesus or if he was as sincere in his apology as he came across. But when I watched his video, I saw someone doing pretty much what Jesus told sinners to do:

Step 1 – Confess (to God and to anyone you’ve offended). “Repentance always brings a person to the point of saying, ‘I have sinned’.” – Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest

Step 2 – Repent (turn from sin). “Repentance involves deliberate turning from sin to righteousness” – Kenneth Barker, NASB Study Bible

Step 4 – Go in sin no more. “Repenting is what happens inside of us that leads to the fruits of new behavior. Repentance is not the new deeds, but the inward change that bears the fruit of new deeds. Jesus is demanding that we experience this inward change.” – John Piper

I’ve never played professional baseball, and I’ve never been suspended from any sport for using performance enhancing drugs. But, like Gordon, I’m a sinner. We’re all sinners. The question is, how do we respond to our sins? Do we continue to live in them? Or do we grow like Jesus and live in forgiveness?

I might never feel the need to repent publicly like Gordon did, but I hope I never let my pride and ego prevent me from taking those key steps toward restored fellowship with Christ: Confess, repent, and stop sinning.

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Some bird-brain ideas on fighting sin

My wife and I were on an evening walk through a nearby neighborhood recently when we noticed something different about the front entryways of a few of the homes: Hanging birds.

An owl here, a crow there.

Not real birds, mind you. Fake birds. But at first glance, they looked real, not to mention somewhat gruesome, hanging above the front porches. Their purpose? To scare away other birds.

These are modern homes with brick exteriors and nicely landscaped lawns, but some of them have narrow but tall entry porches. Birds apparently like to nest on the light fixtures, so some homeowners hang the fake birds as a deterrent.James 4_7

That wouldn’t be my solution of choice, but I appreciate that effort. They know that if they don’t take action, the problem won’t likely fly away on its own.

The same is true with sin and temptation. It can start as a nuisance, but if we don’t proactively deal with it, temptation and sin can move in and take up residency in our lives. Before long, we turn a blind eye to it, acting as if it’s not even there. But unlike the birds in the porches, sin and temptation will take over our entire house.

So how do we prevent it? Well, we could try hanging fake birds or cloves of garlic, but those types of options only invite more trouble.

Scripture, of course, is filled with great solutions. I’m drawn to a simple formula found in James 4:1-10 that I can sum up with one word: Humility.

A lack of humility (aka pride) leads to all sorts of trouble and strife, James points out, while God “shows favor to the humble.” Pride draws us toward temptations and into sin. Humility takes us toward the protective wing of God.

To develop humility, we can follow the pattern in James 4:7 – “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

This is tough advice, at least for me.

First, submit to God. The world tells us to follow our hearts, but God says are hearts are deceitful. If we submit to our hearts or to anything other than God, birds of selfishness begin building their nests. Humility requires a selflessness that’s experienced only when we’re fully surrendered to something outside of ourselves. That something is God. Anything else is an idol.

Second, resist the devil. Even when we’re fully surrendered, the devil will tempt us and we have to actively resist. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:10-18 to put on the “full armor of God,” and he then advocates truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, prayer.

Take a few moments each day to identify the temptations and sins in your life, then take proactive measures to shoo them off your porch. No hanging birds. Just God. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (James 4:10)