THE DISTANT COUNTRY
There are some words that just shouldn’t go together. They even have a weird name. Think back to that English class. Remember? They’re called oxymorons.
Want some more? Bittersweet, jumbo shrimp, silent alarm, invisible ink. How about Twitter conversation? Sometimes oxymorons may be less obvious, like plastic glasses, Microsoft Works, or cheerleading scholarship. But one oxymoron that’s often used and easily missed is self-help.
Quick tip: don’t ask where the self-help section is when you’re at the bookstore. You’re better off finding it yourself. I once made the mistake of inquiring. The store clerk, who had looked dazed and bored out of his mind a second earlier, suddenly perked up. He looked me over for a few seconds, trying—I think—to tell exactly what parts of my self needed help. I didn’t appreciate the scrutiny. Finally he pointed me toward a section in the back. I say “section,” but really it was like an entire region. A fourth of the store was dedicated to all manner of self-help guides. It was a little overwhelming.
So I perused the aisles, suddenly feeling as though there was a lot wrong with me. There were books like How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less, How to Get a Girlfriend, and How to Get Your Boyfriend Back. The books contained all sorts of plans and covered topics from clean teeth and fresh breath to making small talk and dating more than one guy or girl at once. Then there were titles like Becoming a Better You; You Are Why You Eat; Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man; and How to Get What You Want. I quickly fled the self-help section with new doubts about my mental and physical health nipping at my heels.
No matter the subject—did I mention it seemed like there was a whole warehouse full?—all of these books promised a new and improved version of my life in a few easy steps. It’s hard not to be cynical, because logically speaking, if one of the books worked, the rest of them wouldn’t be necessary. But the truth is, self-help books that promise guaranteed, can’t-fail, new-and-improved changes are everywhere.
An article in New York magazine reported that the self-help movement has mushroomed into an “$11 billion industry dedicated to telling us how to improve our lives.” The article observed that there are at least forty-five thousand self-help books in print.
But most of us would have to admit that our self still needs help. Check out the options on your e-reader. You’ll find lists of selections on the following topics: Diet and exercise; improving your relationships; getting control of your finances or getting rich; stress management; and overcoming addictions. And that’s just a few. Look a little closer, and you’ll see that no matter the topic, all of these books have similar taglines and formulas. It’s like all the authors were at the same Mad Libs party.
Follow our [NUMBER 1–8] easy steps, and we guarantee you will [INSERT FINANCIAL GAIN, WEIGHT LOSS GOAL, OR RELATIONAL STATUS] in only a matter of [NUMBER 1–5] [INSERT A MEASUREMENT OF TIME].
And because we’re all too aware that our self needs help, we jump on this misery merry-go-round and buy book after book, hoping for better results. We know something is wrong. We even know what we want to change. Our diagnosis is spot-on, but no medication seems to do the trick.
So if you picked up this book because you are trying to help yourself make some significant changes, I want to tell you up front that this isn’t the book for you. If self could help, then we would all have been fixed a long time ago.
Let me be clear: AHA is not a self-help process. This is the antithesis of a self-help book. What Bizarro is to Superman, this book is to the self-help genre. This journey begins by rejecting self’s offer to help.
AHA: Spiritual Transformation
The word aha is actually in the dictionary. This is roughly defined as “when something is suddenly seen, found, or understood.” We’ll talk about it as AHA: “a sudden spiritual understanding, recognition, or resolution that brings about lasting transformation.” Instead of self-help, we are asking for God’s help. AHA is a spiritual experience that brings about supernatural change.
In some ways AHA can’t be explained—it must be experienced. That’s why it’s best understood through stories. AHA is that moment in someone’s life where there is a beautiful collision. At just the right time, there is a “God moment” when life collides with God’s Word and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Everything changes during that collision. Watching that change is one of my favorite parts of being a pastor. I love witnessing AHA. I see it most weekends at the church where I serve. I listen to people tell about the spiritual awakening they have experienced. They were lost, but now they are found. They were blind, but now they can see.
One girl told about trying to cope with life through impulsive eating. There was nothing a day could throw at her that she couldn’t eat away. A stressful week of classes would lead to a weekend of third and fourth helpings. Facing anxiety from an upcoming project, she would bring home two or three desserts and eat them all at once. Sure, she tried every diet and exercise fad, but she reached 325 pounds. Her weight gain felt unstoppable, and she sank into a deep depression, which only worsened her eating habits. Finally after months and months of cycling through depression and binging, she realized something: food was never going to fill the emptiness in her heart. She had been trying to satisfy her soul by feeding her stomach.
When she came to church, she heard me talk about John 6, the place in the Bible where Jesus described Himself as the “Bread of Life.” In that moment, this girl realized she had been turning to food for what, ultimately, only Jesus could do for her. That was four years and 170 pounds ago. But the outward change was just a by-product of the inner transformation she experienced. She started to look to Jesus to fill the emptiness of her heart.
Another girl realized only Jesus could take away the pain that had driven her to cutting.
A guy found that only Jesus could free him from the pornography habit he’d become slave to.
Three Essential Ingredients
So what is AHA?
My wife has this cookbook at home, a gift from our wedding. It’s called The Three Ingredient Cookbook. She would want me to tell you that she doesn’t really use it. She typically uses more than three ingredients when she cooks. The truth is I’m the one who uses The Three Ingredient Cookbook. On the rare occasions I’m allowed in the kitchen, this cookbook is my go-to cooking companion, because honestly, three ingredients is about all I can handle. One of the things I’ve learned the hard way is that when you use The Three Ingredient Cookbook, all three ingredients are necessary. This is the downside to The Three Ingredient Cookbook. You can’t cheat. If you only use two ingredients, the dish doesn’t turn out very well.
The same is true for AHA. I have listened to the AHA experiences of hundreds—if not thousands—of people over the years. I have studied the transformation experiences of people in the Bible. And I have found that there is amazing consistency—AHA always has three ingredients. If any one of these ingredients is missing, it short-circuits the transformation process.
Here are the three ingredients:
1. A Sudden Awakening
2. Brutal Honesty
3. Immediate Action
Those three elements are always necessary for AHA to take place. If there is an awakening and honesty but no action, then AHA doesn’t happen. If there is awakening and action but no honesty, AHA won’t last. But when God’s Word and the Holy Spirit bring these three things together in your life, you will experience AHA.
The AHA Parable
The three ingredients of AHA really stand out in Jesus’s most famous parable: the parable of the prodigal son. Ask friends who have never even opened a Bible, and they probably know this story. You—and they—can find it in Luke 15. Let’s travel with the Prodigal Son on his journey. We’ll see the three elements of AHA in his life, and we can pray for them in our own.
In the story, a father had two sons. The youngest son came to his father and insisted on getting his share of the inheritance—immediately. He was ready to leave home and head out on his own.
Jesus said the son ended up in “a distant country” (Luke 15:13). Remember, Jesus was telling this parable to Jewish leaders. When he used the phrase distant country, they knew exactly what he meant. Back then, any distant land would be considered Gentile land, which was a big deal. It clearly meant the son wasn’t just walking away from his father; he was walking away from his faith.
Bound for the Distant Country
Every AHA story includes the Distant Country—areas of our lives where we leave God out. We post No Trespassing signs around the perimeter and make it clear that God is not welcome. Like the Prodigal Son, we leave the Father’s house and head out on our own.
It may help to pause and think about your life. What are the areas of your life—or maybe it’s your whole life—that could be described as the Distant Country? Take a minute and replace this general description—Distant Country—with the name of your own specific location.
There are a lot of reasons why we leave the Father and head for the Distant Country.
The Prodigal Son was consumed with now and wasn’t too concerned with later. He wanted his money immediately even though he would have gotten more if he waited. The cravings for immediate pleasure squandered what would have been a life-changing investment. But the son had more greed than patience, and he took what he shouldn’t have even been asking for and headed off. When he arrived in the distant country, he wasted his money on “wild living.” He didn’t care about saving anything for later. He was only into getting as much pleasure as he could at the moment.
It reminds me of the 2013 Super Bowl—or the Super Bowl commercials anyway. Those are the best part, right? Pepsi’s advertising campaign in 2013 was hard to miss. After all, they ran multiple thirty-second spots and sponsored the halftime show. Their slogan was simple: Live for Now.
Pepsi spent millions of dollars communicating that message. I think they could have saved themselves a lot of money; that message is unnecessary. “Live for Now” is what most of us do best. It’s our default approach to life. The word that best captures Pepsi’s motto is hedonism. Not quite as catchy as “Live for Now,” but that’s essentially hedonism’s definition. It’s the heart of wild living. Hedonists don’t worry about what happens later or what consequences they may face down the road.
This was the Prodigal Son’s approach to life: live for now now and worry about later later. Whatever might happen later didn’t seem nearly as important as what he might experience right now.
The Distant Country is the land where you live for now, and later find your self is in desperate need of help. If you think about the different areas of your self that need some help, there’s a good chance that choosing to “Live for Now” is what got your self in trouble in the first place.
When you travel to the Distant Country, you are not just going—you are also leaving. The Prodigal Son went for wild living, but he also left his father. What drives many travelers to the Distant Country is that, for one reason or another, they are running away from God. Everyone who runs from God has his or her own reason, but there are a few common reasons prodigals pack their bags and turn their backs away from the Father’s house.
The Unreasonable Father
The son in Luke 15 seemed to think that living in his father’s house has caused him to miss out. Similarly, many travelers to the Distant Country also see God as an unreasonable Father. In this light, we see God as a Father who has a long list of rules that seem designed to take all the fun out of life. These travelers might describe God as “The Great Cosmic Killjoy” who’s out to ruin any fun.
That’s probably how Justin would have described God. Justin grew up in a Christian home and attended a Christian school. His parents forced him to keep his hair short and his curfew early. Justin was convinced that his sheltered life had caused him to miss out. One year, Justin was home watching MTV Spring Break thinking about all the fun he should be having. So as soon as he graduated from high school, he packed his bags and headed for the Distant Country. What else would you expect from a son who spent years in the Father’s house daydreaming about all the fun he was missing out on?
The Unpleasable Father
Others head for the Distant Country because they see God as an unpleasable Father. The rationale goes something like this: because God’s standards are so high, nothing I do will ever be good enough for Him. Maybe these people grew up in a church that influenced this belief—whenever they heard about God, He always seemed frustrated with them. Maybe everything they heard about God made them believe that He would only shake His head in disappointment whenever He looked at them.
Or maybe they grew up feeling like their best was never good enough. If they brought home a B on their report card, it should have been an A. If they scored fifteen points during the basketball game, they should’ve had twenty.
If you think of God as an unpleasable Father, at some point you’ll quit trying. What’s the point of making the effort if nothing you do is good enough?
The Unmerciful Father
Some leave the Father and head for the Distant Country because they see God as an unmerciful Father. They see God as an angry Father who is borderline abusive and who seems to find pleasure in distributing punishment. He’s always watching and waiting for them to slip up. And when He catches them, it doesn’t matter how sorry they are—there will be hell to pay … literally.
If you’ve been taught to be afraid of God, you’ll naturally respond by running away from Him.
A few years ago I came home from work to find that my wife and kids had agreed to dog-sit for some friends. The dog’s name was Pork Chop, and everyone was excited about our new houseguest. But when I walked into the room, Pork Chop was not glad to see me. He responded to my presence by peeing on the floor and running into the next room. I tried not to take it personally, but later that same evening, when I walked into the room where Pork Chop was, he responded the same way. He peed, ran away, and hid.
We later found out that Pork Chop had been rescued from an abusive situation and had learned to be afraid of men. He had no reason to fear me. I had taken him into my home and provided him with shelter and food. But because Pork Chop had learned to be afraid of men, he always ran away. I could never get close to him.
That’s how some people relate to God. They run away to the Distant Country and never give Him a chance, because they’ve been conditioned to be afraid of Him.
The Uncaring Father
I wish it weren’t so common, but I’ve talked to many travelers who are in the Distant Country because they see God as an uncaring Father. God wasn’t there for me when I needed Him the most, they think. So they head to the Distant Country and don’t look back. From then on, they view God as an impersonal force that doesn’t know or care about what’s happening in their lives. So their relationship with God can be summed up like this: if He doesn’t care about me, then I don’t care about Him.
Family therapist John Trent shared a letter given to him by a third-grade teacher. The letter was part of a school assignment. The students had been told to write a letter to their fathers. Here’s what one student wrote:
Dear Daddy, I love you so much. When are you going to come see me again? I miss you very much. I love when you take me to the pool. When am I going to spend the night at your house? Have you ever seen my house before? I want to see what your house looks like. When am I going to get to see you again? I love you, Daddy.
What’s going to happen to that third grader’s heart as she gets older? She will become more disillusioned and disappointed. Eventually she’ll walk away bitter and wounded.
The Loving Father
What we discover in Jesus’s parable is that God is a loving, merciful, gracious, and caring Father. When we end up in the Distant Country, it’s inevitable that we will find ourselves in a place where self is in desperate need of help. And where we turn for that help can make all the difference.
You heard the beginning of Justin’s story—the kid who was watching MTV and itching to have some fun. He headed to the Distant Country and dove in to wild living completely: sex, booze, parties, all-nighters. And Justin was the wildest when it came to drugs. You name it; Justin tried it. Didn’t matter how extreme or how dangerous, Justin was always ready to get high.
But after a while, the drugs that were fun became an addiction, and addiction brought Justin to his knees. His life was in shambles, and Justin knew he needed something. He made some noble self-help attempts, but each tearful resolution always ended in relapse. He tried to get professional help. Rehab treatments failed, addiction cleanses didn’t stick, and working a program never worked. Justin started to feel like he had nowhere to turn. A horrifying notion awoke inside of him: Maybe I’m broken for good.
Justin recently came to speak with me after one of our weekend church services. “I’m high on heroin right now,” were the first words out of his mouth. Looking into his sunken face and bloodshot eyes, I believed him. He began to weep as he told me his story. It seems that his reckless choices had left a trail of emotional wreckage that had wounded his relationships with friends, family, and, ultimately, God.
But Justin was realizing that God wasn’t a Father who wanted to ruin life’s fun. He was a Father who loved him and would forgive him no matter what. Justin felt he needed to get help that instant, because he couldn’t trust himself to wait the twenty-four hours till Monday morning. He looked at me, shaken with his own reality and desperate for help. I embraced him, and all I could say was, “You’ve come to the right place.”
The AHA journey doesn’t begin with a determined commitment to self-help—it starts with a humble request for God’s help. Justin learned a simple truth that changed everything: when there’s nowhere else to turn, all you have to do is turn around and head back to the Father. Justin summed it up by saying, “I’m tired of running from God.”