I had an epiphany that night.
It was about 2:30 am - I know because the bars were closed and I was desperately wanting another drink. I was trying to make it back to my borrowed bedroom on the north end of Eldon, Iowa. I was drunk, but for me drunk and walking was not drunk enough. It was then that I spotted it; a discarded can of Budweiser lying next to the curb. I staggered over and picked it up. To my delight I found a bit of backwash left in the bottom of the can. I excitedly slammed it down.
It was then that I had the epiphany.
In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son. Raised by a good father who loved him deeply, the boy failed to realize all he had. One day he asked his dad for his inheritance. Knowing full well an inheritance is not collected until the death of the benefactor, the boy was essentially saying, "Dad, I wish you were dead. But since you're not, how about giving me my share of your wealth now." The brokenhearted father did as his son asked, and not long after, watched his boy disappear down the road.
Easy money spends easily. The boy quickly blew through the small fortune and became homeless. Eventually he found a job feeding pigs, hardly a kosher job for a Jewish boy. Eventually he caught himself fantasizing about the pig's food. It was then Jesus says, "he came to himself."
I have loved that phrase for years because it sums up the night I drank someone else's spit. I had to come face to face with what I'd become. I had to admit how bad it was. And, like the young man in Jesus' story, only then did I think of the Father.
It wasn't immediate for me. It would still be a few more months of running from God before I would cry out to Him in another borrowed bedroom. But when I did, like the Father in Jesus' story, God flooded the room and accepted me with open arms. I will never forget it.
When I say God came into my room, I am not speaking metaphorically. He came, and I felt Him. I was absolutely overwhelmed. I hadn't realized how utterly lonely I was until that moment. He loved me through and through. And that love changed me. It accomplished what drug rehab hadn't. It made me want to live right; I didn't want to ever hurt my Father again.
My life has hinged on that experience to this day. It was not long before I would enter Teen Challenge. I then went onto Bible School where I would not only learn the Word of God, I would meet my wife of 27 years. We would go onto to have seven children and give our lives to ministry. But none of that would have happened had it not been for that night when a brokenhearted Father welcomed back a broken son.
When I was in high school, I wasn’t much of a student. When it came to math, I think I owed points. But as bad as I was at math, the class I hated most was English Literature. It wasn’t that I was bad at language. For all the bad grades I “earned”, I had a natural bent toward words. What I dreaded about the class was the teacher’s requirement that we would each read out loud to the rest of the students. Due to some bad experiences, I was painfully self-conscious at that time of my life and it crippled me socially. Because of this, I absolutely dreaded having to speak publicly.
When the teacher would tell us to take out our books, my heart would begin to beat out of my chest. As the anxiety quickly escalated, I felt I could literally crawl out of my skin. And then…the teacher would say my name. On several occasions, as I attempted to read, I would begin to visibly tremble, my voice would shake and eventually I would freeze completely. The teacher would break the awkward silence by calling on another student while the others stared, mumbled and laughed. I wanted to die.
This anxiety was the very thing that drove me to alcoholism. I developed the habit of having some Jim Beam Tennessee Bourbon ready for class time. Whiskey became my courage and I made sure I was under its influence before entering English Lit just in case I was called upon.
When I met Jesus, He was a lifeline to me. My desire for alcohol and drugs left as He entered. But even though He delivered me from my addictions, the anxiety that drove me to them stubbornly remained. I remember thinking, “Heaven is my destination, but I will be a mute until I get there.” My inability to speak up still haunted me. Little did I know my fiercest battles surrounded my destiny; I was called to preach.
A few years into my walk with the Lord, He spoke to me the following words, “Every stronghold has a harlot.” Although I didn’t understand it at the time, He was giving me keys to my own deliverance.
Having been raised in Sunday School, I knew He was referring to the story of Rahab the prostitute. It’s a fascinating narrative. God’s people have come out of slavery but have yet to enter their promised land. Occupied by their enemies, they must uproot these adversaries in order to inhabit their destiny.
Once over the border, the first city the Israelites came upon was Jericho, a walled stronghold which stood between them and their calling. Interestingly enough, the key to taking the city turned out to be a prostitute named Rahab. In fact, Scripture tells us her house was actually part of the city wall. In making an alliance with her, the Israelite spies were able to gather intel and escape capture. Before leaving, the scouts told Rahab to hang a red cord out her window so they could spare her and her entire family during the coming invasion.
If you know the story, it is one of drama and adventure. The children of Israel marched around the city seven days and on the last march, the city walls collapsed…all but the sliver holding up Rahab’s condo. It is a vivid picture of God’s mercy.
Redemptive history goes on to record how Rahab would marry into Israel, eventually becoming a mother in the lineage of both David and, eventually, Jesus. Spared from death, the former prostitute would become a vehicle to bring Christ into the world.
And that is the point. In delivering me of my addiction to drinking, God had torn down the wall of alcoholism the enemy hid behind in my life. Yet, the harlot insecurity which drove me to it was not destroyed. Instead, God left me insecure, only to reveal Himself as the answer to those insecurities. When I first met Jesus, I needed Him just to face the day. My need was a vacuum that pulled me to Him.
Alcohol having been so central to my life, Ephesians 5 stood out to me early on in my walk with God. In this passage Paul exhorts, “Do not be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.” In this statement he reveals alcohol as the counterfeit with the infilling of the Spirit as the genuine. This revelation changed my life. What alcohol was to me – confidence, joy, comfort – the Holy Spirit would become to me. I made a decision to live “under the influence” (I have often thought it was not a coincidence the Lord included this in the fifth of Ephesians).
Remember: when God removes our stronghold, He often leaves the harlot untouched. In my case, He delivered me from alcohol, but left my insecurities as a way to draw me to Himself. My greatest fear – speaking – which was once the harlot that caused me to sell myself out to alcohol, became the very avenue by which God would both draw me to Himself and use me to bring Him to the world. His strength truly is made perfect in the area of our weakness!
Let's be honest; fasting is a strange practice. Add to this the fact that some of fasting's major proponents are Christians who believe in a Gospel of grace, and it only gets more confusing. As New Testament believers we understand we cannot earn God's favor. Yet we see this pattern of self-denial used by God not only in the Old Testament, but in the New as well. What are we to make of this? What place does fasting serve in the New Covenant?
We can safely say Jesus' life is an example to us all. For Him, fasting served as a tool of transition. He moved from private relationship to public ministry through a fast. If we examine the Word of God, we see this is a pattern used several times by the Father to promote His children. The hallway between the old and the new is often a place of temporary deprivation and testing - and many times it includes hunger.
Scripture explicitly says, "Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tested by the devil." After 40 days of fasting, the enemy seized this moment of vulnerability to tempt Jesus to turn a stone into bread. Jesus responded with, "Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." In His answer, Jesus reveals one of the primary objectives of His time in the wilderness: establish His dependence upon the word of God to sustain Him.
Jesus' reply wasn't pulled out of thin air, however. It was a direct quote from Deuteronomy 8:3. In this passage we see that God had used this pattern before. In chapter 8 Moses reminds Israel of how God intentionally led them into the wilderness precisely to make them hunger. This was done to test them and reveal their hearts. The goal was for them to realize what Jesus declared: They do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from God's mouth. In quoting this verse, Jesus is identifying His testing with that of the Israelites transitioning between Egypt and the Promised Land.
Hunger is an interesting teacher. It reveals the heart like little else can. Human hunger creates Divine access to get to root issues. What is in man comes out when he is hungry. This is one of the benefits of fasting.
In his excellent book Bruchko, Bruce Olson shares about his missions work in the jungle along the Colombia-Venezuela border. Having no sending agency, he wandered into the Amazon at 19 years old with nothing more than a sense of a call from God. Having been riddled with arrows in an attack by hostiles, Olson was taken in by a friendly tribe and nursed back to health. Living among them, he lived like them. After many months, he decided to travel out of the jungle to contact family. During his journey, he lacked the food provided by his tribal hosts. One night, in exhaustion, he fell against a tree to rest. However his deep sleep was interrupted by something crawling up his throat. In panic he began to gag and cough. Reaching his hand into his mouth, he pulled a long worm out of his throat. Later he would realized his starvation caused this dormant worm to climb upward in search of food.
What Bruce Olson experienced in the physical is replicated spiritually in a fast. Dormant issues which lie unseen in normal life crawl to the surface in hunger, allowing us to identify and deal with them. I can appear spiritual, but deny me food for a few days and I can suddenly become unpleasant to be around.
God led His children into the wilderness to test them. They failed the test and were sentenced to live their lives out in the hallway between their origin and their destiny. Jesus was led into the wilderness as well. In His fast, He passed the test and emerged in the power of the Spirit to redeem us all.
As we head into January, Heartland will once again enter into a 21-day fast. Let's follow Jesus into this voluntary wilderness as a way of entering this new year. The Father is using an ancient pattern with us. He's inviting us into His hallway of transition which leads to a new season for each of us. Our response will determine whether we come out in power or are sentenced to that in-between area while heaven awaits a future people willing to respond.