October 22, 1998, was a whirlwind of a day. It was on that Sunday evening when my personal relationship with Jesus hit a breaking point. I wasn't at a church service or a revival or a music concert. I was home alone, sinning.
On that evening, I had come to Jesus with yet another confession. I think I must have been known in heaven for my many confessions. I made a habit of confessing my sin. Nearly every time I fell short of God's glory-which was often-I'd offer Jesus my apology. This particular time, I was apologizing for my regular once-every-couple-of-months bout with sexual gratification through the beautiful convenience of online pornography.
Locked away in my bedroom, I had spent the better half of that Sunday afternoon diving headfirst into my own little world of sexual images. I invested three glorious hours into high-speed downloadable ecstasy. I wasn't addicted to porn-at least, I didn't think so-but I did have a haphazardly scheduled, few-times-a-year habit. It was my little secret. It was one of many sinful habits on a list that included pride, low self-esteem, selfishness, and anger, all of which I would often try to kick cold turkey, to no avail.
My regular stint with sin always included a "fall flat on my face before God" declaration of repentance. It was always a heartfelt, beautifully executed climaxing dismount. I had perfected the art of confessing. And this particular confession was no different. My guilt-induced Jesus-whimpering began shortly after my cyber-escapade ended. "Jesus, I am so sorry. If you forgive me one more time, I will never let this happen again" was my usual plea bargain. But I meant what I said. I truly thought it would never happen again. I hated sinning-not necessarily because of the act itself-but because of the way it made me feel afterward: gross and unworthy-right up there with child molesters and rapists and abortionists. One time the guilt from sin hit me so hard that I literally became nauseated and ended up vomiting in the office toilet.
God had been enduring my repulsive apology routine for years: I'd sin, I'd feel guilty; I'd fall on my face and ask for forgiveness, and bam-I'd be forgiven. It worked this way every single time. In my mind, there wasn't any chance God wouldn't accept me back into his ever-loving arms. I knew that freedom and grace were a part of his character, and I made a habit of taking advantage of that.
Every single time I went to God and asked for his forgiveness, I had always been taken back into his arms rather quickly. Almost instantly, after saying a few quick words, I would feel comfort again. I foolishly assumed that it was his responsibility to forgive me and make me feel better. Let's face it-he's the God of grace and mercy, right? A waiting period with God is not common; it was my experience that he was quick, to the point, and always there.
For me, Jesus was my personal "God ATM." Every time I needed acceptance or mercy or love or grace or freedom, I would just go to the ATM and get a withdrawal. And that day was no different. Even though I had spent the better part of an afternoon giving in to the temptation of sin, I had no doubt that I would soon feel the warmth of his graceful presence just like many times before; he always listened to me with his merciful ear. Always!
However on that day, it was a very different story. On that day, God wasn't listening to my negotiating. It seemed my prayers weren't reaching heaven. I said them over and over again, but I still failed to feel at peace with my situation.
The ATM seemed to be out of order-or maybe out of funds. There were no gracious arms hugging me and patting me on the back such as I had always experienced before. No one was telling me, "It's going to be okay, Matthew." Instead of comfort, hope, and forgiveness, I felt very alone, abandoned, and caged-and I passionately hated that feeling.
My first thought was that perhaps God hadn't heard me ask him for forgiveness the first time. So I begged some more, and this time, I said it louder-even trying to make it seem more meaningful than before. "God, I am so sorry for what I've been doing. Please don't take your blessings away from me. Please forgive me. I want to feel better. I need you."
Although I was rather impressed with those words and my perfect delivery style, still there was no word from Jesus. He wasn't making any effort to make me feel better. At that point, a million thoughts started running through my head. This is it, I realized. He's finally fed up with my disgusting shenanigans, and he's going to unveil me as the foolish bastard that I am. And still he was silent. He had never been silent with me before. I didn't know what to do. I hate silence. It's one thing when someone is just quiet because there's nothing to talk about, but when someone is silent on purpose because they no longer want to partake in a conversation with you-that's a whole other story. But I believe now that we can all learn from those uncomfortable moments when God is silent.
Consider the moments in biblical history when God was silent toward his people for a long period of time. Remember Joseph and his run-in with Potipher's wife? She made a sexual advance toward him; he refused her advance-even ran out of the bedroom. The woman became embarrassed and irritated with Joseph, so she told her husband that Joseph had tried to force himself on her. Poor Joseph ended up spending fourteen years in prison for a crime he never committed. And God remained silent in Joseph's situation. Only a few times did Joseph get a glimpse of hope that he would one day be free. But for the better part of fourteen excruciating years, God seemed to be absent in Joseph's life. When God is silent, it's easy to get frustrated and angry over his apparent lack of interest in what is going on in your particular life situation.
So when God seemed to ignore my cry for forgiveness, I did what came naturally to me (something that comes naturally to all of us, I guess): I went back to the comfort of my sin. Instead of hating my sin, instead of despising the thing that was keeping me from living my life freely, I set up house in a cage of my own desires, where I was my own god and made my own rules-where I could get what I wanted. I began learning how to survive (and even enjoy) the confines of my tainted environment. I decided to get comfortable in my surroundings, thinking to myself, Well, if God isn't going to help me out, I'll help myself out. So I put all of my time, energy, and emotion into pleasing me. And that's what I did. And it felt good for a while-really good.
Humans are certainly prone to living in cages. Cages are often comfortable, plush surroundings that offer the illusion of freedom. Oh, people's cages look different, feel different, and can consist of many different things, but no matter how you dress a cage up, it's still a cage.
A cage is anything that keeps us from being completely free-from sin, mediocrity, religion, power, culture, and much more. Cages often keep us from pursuing the hopes and dreams Jesus has placed in our hearts. Cages lock us away inside familiarity or pleasure. Cages can make us unhappy, depressed, and self-consumed, but they can also make us feel invigorated and free. Many people are quick to equate their cages to sin, and often that's the case. But cages aren't limited to sin. Surprisingly, many humans find themselves caged by church, family, jobs, extracurricular activities, knowledge, friends, pop culture, philosophies, and thousands of other things-and certainly sin too.
The craftsmanship of an individual's cage depends greatly on the things he or she has been taught, accustomed to, or believes to be true. I have a dear friend who was taught during his childhood to fear anything remotely religious. When James came to know Jesus in 1999, it was through the unconventional means of his research for a college psychology paper on the impact of Christian ministries in urban communities. After seeing how the faith-based organizations influenced the lives of inner-city children, my friend became a believer in Jesus, but not in the church. James's cage was his inability to trust any organized religious practice. After two years of counseling, in 2001 James walked into his first community of faith and worshiped for the first time with other Christians. He says this of his experience: "My parents are atheists, and their influence on my thinking crippled my ability to be free. I had learned that nothing good comes from inside the walls of a church building. It wasn't until I decidedly moved against that teaching that I saw how deeply affected I was by what I considered to be true."
Jesus wasn't kidding when he said that truth will set you free (see John 8:32). Yet despite our quick habit to claim Jesus has freed us from our sins, so many of us end up not fully understanding what that freedom truly means.
Most of us know that when we ask Jesus to come into our hearts (the salvation experience), we are instantly made new creatures in the eyes of God. In essence, Jesus puts his seal of approval on us, and we are made right and holy before God. Before we come to grips with the sacrifice of Christ, we are nothing more than condemned individuals destined for an eternity apart from God. But we have the assurance that when Jesus came into our lives, he made us free from future judgment. To break it down in nonspiritual terms, it's a makeover of sorts-and it's extreme.
This particular kind of freedom (the freedom from the punishment for our sin) is the beginning of faith. It's the jumping-off point. Without freedom from sin through the blood sacrifice of Christ, there is no faith journey. This is where a relationship with Christ begins. This is where Jesus wakes us up to his purpose for us-living a life of faith. Submitting yourself to what Christ did on the cross is the single most important decision you can make. (You probably already know that.) Because without Christ, it's futile to even try to get out of our cages.
But for me, even though I knew Jesus had freed me from my sin, my misunderstanding of freedom in Christ restrained me from truly experiencing the liberty that Jesus offers each of us. I think this is true for many people of faith. If we truly want to experience Jesus to the fullest and live extraordinarily, though, we must pursue complete freedom.
After we begin following Jesus, most of us join churches, begin reading faith-based books and devotionals, start pursuing Christian relationships, and invest ourselves into the "Christian" way of life. We pick up many "Christian" practices, beliefs, and ideals along the way. Our understanding of Scripture, evangelism, and Jesus is shaped by all the "Christian stuff." Over time, many of us become quite dependent upon our theology, doctrine, good deeds, and overall love of Christian things. Our church life begins to influence our politics, the people we hang out with, the way we handle family crisis, our view of sexuality and relationships, the jobs we choose to explore, our opinions about sin, and so much more. Sometimes these influences are built around the truth of the gospel, but often they are not. So often what influences our behavior is humanity's opinions of truth. These opinions often become the beginning framework for our future cages. In an effort to remain free, we read more books, go to different churches, and pursue more Christian relationships. This way of life becomes a vicious cycle that eats away at our faith and paralyzes our ability to keep focused on the journey.
Consequently, many of us end up lost in a great deal of spiritual confusion. Some of us run away from our faith, but most of us stay in hopes of one day coming to an understanding. We become confused about petty issues like whether it's right or wrong to drink alcohol or to kiss on a first date. We spend precious time debating such issues. We even write books on these topics. And even more frustrating than our indecisiveness about the right and wrong of basic human behavior is the sad fact that our cages inhibit our ability to share our faith. Our ability to be a witness is limited by the rules we've been subject to all our lives. Past mistakes like divorce, drug addiction, and unmarried sex become the foundations for guilt-ridden futures lived inside cages.
Too often we end up living caged lives for Jesus. Do you call that living? I don't.
A twenty-two-year-old African American woman named Ruthie once told me that she was having a difficult time being sexually intimate with her new husband. I'm not sure why, but this bothered me, so being somewhat blunt, I asked her why. She told me that as a child she had always been taught by her mother the importance of purity. "I can still hear Momma telling me not to let a man touch me," said Ruthie. "And now it's stuck with me. It's very difficult for me to just let go and be free with the man I love and am married to. I feel guilty trying to be sexy for him."
I know a little about what Ruthie is feeling. I grew up in a church that harped on purity as the be-all and end-all of truth. Instead of focusing on my motives or my heart condition, the Christian individuals I lived among were constantly watching to see if I was going to screw up. Some of them even seemed to hope I would. So instead of learning how to respect a woman, I learned how not to get caught. And that was a cage I had to be freed from-a cage that has caused me much pain and anxiety as an adult.
I've met some Christians who have blamed their struggle with homosexuality on the heavy-handed rhetoric of the church. Paul Thyme, a friend of mine from my college days, says his feelings toward the same sex began because the church was so adamant about men not being intimate with women. "Don't touch girls, don't sit too close, you better look the other way when a woman walks by-I remember it all," Paul told me in a phone conversation last year. "I didn't want to struggle, but if you take women completely out of a young man's life and replace them with circumstances like prepubescent boys taking showers together after a ballgame-some guys, even Christian guys, are going to have problems. At least, I did." Paul added that he feels he would have been able to be free from his cage much sooner had gay issues not been such a taboo topic among family, friends, and the church. Paul's cage wasn't so much the concept of being gay as it was his inability to discuss his situation openly. In secret, he battled guilt, hidden "friendships," and thoughts of suicide.
Ruthie and Paul weren't meant to live in these cages. Followers of Jesus are meant to live free. But in both instances, a graceless teaching from their past kept them locked up emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
Some cages are simply based on false data.
I was seventeen years old when doctors told me that I needed back surgery to correct my scoliosis (a curvature of the spine)-a battle I had been fighting since I was four years old. I didn't want to have surgery, so I asked God to heal me. I remember sitting in front of the TV several weeks before my surgery date, listening to a televangelist tell me that if I truly believed God could heal me, I should lay one hand on the TV. I was skeptical of this approach, but I really wanted to be healed and had no doubt God could do it.
With faith, fear, and expectation all wrapped up in a tight knot within my gut, I placed my hand on the face of the television set. The preacher then proceeded to pray on my behalf for healing, and I guess on the behalf of others too. When he said "Amen," I firmly believed I was healed.
Although I didn't feel much different, I just knew that God had made my back straight. I took off my shirt, stood in front of the bathroom mirror, and convinced myself that my spine was straight. My heart was filled with hope and excitement.
A week later, I went in for my final checkup. I was certain that when the doctors looked at the X-ray, they would return with some miraculous news. I would then give God all the glory.
While I sat in one of the observation rooms at A. I. Dupont Children's Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, the anticipation was killing me. Finally, the doctors returned.
"Well, Matthew, . . . " said the doctor.
This is it. God has healed me; I just know it. There isn't going to be any surgery.
". . . with your surgery being next week, we'll need you to come in tomorrow to begin giving blood."
What?!? You mean I still have to have the operation?
I was speechless, disappointed, and tearful, lost in my cage of misconstrued theology. It wasn't until many years later that I began to break free from petty theological idiosyncrasies such as this.
Whether it's codependency on someone or an unhealthy relationship with family or insecurities with image and sexuality, everyone's cages are different. Christians talk with such passion about freedom, yet many of us have no concept of what it means to be truly free.
Many times we are controlled and manipulated by bad doctrine. And the only remedy for bad doctrine is to hold on for dear life to what we know to be true-that there is no guilty verdict for those whom Jesus knows. We are intoxicated by the passions, disasters, and influences of culture instead of standing firm on the gospel's integrity and peace. We are overcome with the power to judge and be separate instead of humbly ignoring what exists to our right and left and keeping our hearts, minds, and actions on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We settle for living within the restricted quarters of our own personal cages rather than forging ahead in freedom and confidence. Christians must stop building cages. We must passionately pursue freedom. It is freedom that must be set free if we want to see, feel, and experience the Spirit of a living God destroying our cages.