Fresh Start God's Invitation to a Great Life
by Doug Fields
By Doug Fields
Back in the 1950s, a notorious gangster named Mickey Cohen controlled the bulk of organized crime in Los Angeles. Many people have heard of his heinous deeds-but few know about his faith story.
One day, Mickey heard about a young evangelist named Billy Graham who was holding revival meetings in the LA Coliseum. Southern Californians flocked to hear the famous preacher, and Mickey was curious. He knew he was leading a miserable life and that he desperately needed help, so he made the decision to attend the crusade.
During the meeting, Mickey felt God calling him to go to the altar, along with thousands of others, to accept forgiveness for his sins. Mickey admitted that he needed the new life in Christ of which Billy spoke.
Great news-right? Well, six months later, when Billy Graham came back through Los Angeles, he met with Mickey-and discovered that nothing had changed in his life. The gangster was still running drugs and putting the squeeze on people. And beyond his outer actions, his inner world still felt miserable.
Billy warned Mickey that it wasn’t possible to be a Christian gangster. But Mickey felt that he couldn’t start over again. When Billy pressed him on the problem, Mickey admitted that he couldn’t put down his pride, wealth, and pleasures to pursue God’s ways.
In the end, Mickey Cohen never did change. Sadly, he died the notorious criminal he always had been.
Even though you may have never heard of Mickey, you may be a little like him. I know I am. Here’s the shocking truth: as Christians, we all have a little of Mickey Cohen in us. We want God in our lives, and all the good stuff He promises, but we also want what we want-even if it’s harmful to us.
In a word, we’re stuck.
Our Mickey Cohen Tendencies
Here’s my confession: although I’ve been a follower of Christ for many years, there are still areas in my life that feel stuck.
Do you know what I mean by "stuck"? I’m not talking about sitting in the middle seat between two large friends on a cross-country flight (I’ve done that!). I’m talking about being spiritually stuck-bad habits that I can’t seem to get under control, nagging sins that never seem to go fully away, positive character traits I should have developed by now but that are still not apparent in my life. I desperately want to go forward and find greater maturity in my relationship with Christ, but it seems as though something is always holding me back from a fresh start.
I wouldn’t say I’m tempted by the "biggies." I’m not going to run out tomorrow and rob a bank or murder someone or dress up like a woman and go out dancing in search of men. (Actually, I’m not even slightly tempted in those areas-women’s shoes hurt my feet.) But even as a pastor, I always acknowledge I’m just one bad decision away from being a front-page scandal. (I’m sure you’ve read about some of my colleagues.) So for me, one example of me being stuck is connected more with my ugly thoughts (the ones I know I shouldn’t be thinking after thirty years of following Jesus), or the thoughtless, stupid words that occasionally fly out of my mouth (I should know better!). In short, the person I want to be (really want to be), well, I’m just not quite there yet. I feel bogged down in some areas of my life. Can you relate? I’m guessing you can.
Whenever we feel stuck, we’re in good company. Even the apostle Paul-one of the "heroes" of our faith-admitted he had recurring struggles with sin (Rom. 7:15-19) ... and he wrote half of the New Testament. He wanted to do what was right, but he just couldn’t do it. And when he tried not to do wrong, he often found himself doing it anyway. In fact, sometimes he even did the very things he hated most!
That’s being stuck.
"Stuckness" can be a problem for us and the people we love. It can sap us of hope and make us feel like spiritual failures. It can rob us of joy. It can steal our vitality, our confidence, our contentment. Worse, the things that keep us stuck can eventually grow to destroy us. But being stuck is never part of the plan for the abundant life Jesus promised in John 10:10. God wants us to be ever moving forward so we can discover the fullness of the life He came to provide. And as people who follow Him, we want to go forward too. We desire all the fullness of life that God offers to us. We want a fresh start with God-today!
I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. -Jesus Christ (John 10:10 NKJV)
Do you sense that there might be things in your life holding you back from living the life God intended? If so, it’s not too late for something new. The Bible is clear that we can pull free from the place where we are stuck, and we can start again. And God loves to provide the way forward. All of creation is about new birth, new life, new relationships with Him. God sees the new ahead of us and wants us to be free to get there; in other words, He wants to give us a fresh start!
Look at the fresh start God promised Isaiah: "I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland!" (Isaiah 43:19 NLT). That’s a tremendous promise, one that I believe God continues to offer today.
But maybe you’re throwing up a caution flag already. You’re thinking to yourself, Wait a minute, pal! You just admitted that you sometimes feel stuck too. You’re in the same bog as me! How can you possibly offer any hope and answers? Why should I listen to you? How can your book help me?
Great questions. There are plenty of books out there already-but many are by authors who try to convince us we’re not stuck. They say we are strong, clever, capable, and fully able to solve our own problems by determination and grit with some added enthusiasm. Their messages emphatically state, "What you believe, you can achieve!" The implication is that if we can only summon up enough inner power, or slice and dice our personalities with the right spiritual techniques, then we will inevitably buff up our lives so we can be the perfect people we need to be. God will be so happy with us-hey, we will be happy with us-if only we will try harder.
Surprise. I’m here with the opposite message. We are poor, pathetic, spiritually penniless sinners. We are stuck people indeed. What’s more, we can never scrub ourselves up enough to be perfect. Our ability to start again doesn’t come from our own strength or resolve or positive thinking. Neither does the power to change come from our "inner light," some kind of Jesus-consciousness or transcendental glow sticks. The bottom line is that change comes only because we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength (Phil. 4:13). We are free to change, yes, but not by our own limited power. Real, lasting change comes from God’s unlimited power. Anything else is a temporary fix.
That’s why I can write this message. We are all in this together. Yes, I do have times when I am stuck-just like you. I know I’m a candidate in need of God’s transforming power. But I also know how to tune in to God so that I can access His promised power and experience change that will last. And that’s what I want to share with you in this book.
Here’s the good news: God knows that it’s easy for us to become stuck. He’s well aware of the fact that we are all honorary members of the "Stuck Club"-and yet He loves us anyway and longs to transform us. God is in the transformation business. He takes real, flawed, messy people and invites us to start fresh and live lives of fullness and forward motion. And best of all, fresh starts are available more than once. Sometimes we get unstuck, only to get stuck again sometime later. That’s okay. God doesn’t demand that we walk a tightrope of perfection. His grace is offered continually and is always within reach. God’s plan is something we can all look at and say, "Yeah, I could do that."
So are you ready to grab hold of a fresh start for your life? Let’s go!
But wait ... we need to deal with Mickey Cohen first. As I said, there’s a little Mickey in all of us.
The Lure of the "Stuck Club"
Let me paint a picture for you. Week after week, you go to church, desperately in need of a fresh start for your spirit. But you feel as though you’re on a treadmill; you keep going and going ... but you’re not getting anywhere. You’re a follower of Jesus-you know you are-and yet you feel dry and parched, desperate for God’s presence. So today, you arrive at church, hoping for an exhilarating worship experience or a message from God just for you, some external influence that will trigger a spiritual fresh start. But nothing happens. And you leave just like you came.
What’s the problem? Why can’t you change? Why can’t I change? Sometimes it’s just a bad day at church, but other times the deeper issue is that we flat out like being in the Stuck Club. Whatever our sin, there’s something attractive about it that makes us want to hang on to it. In other words, we’re just like Mickey.
But what does the Bible have to say about those sins to which we so tenaciously cling? Second Corinthians 7:1 says,
Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
Read the verse one more time and see if you can identify the key word in the passage. What do you think it is? Go ahead and look; I’ll be waiting. I think it’s everything. Have you ever made a list of the "everything" in your life, those areas of messiness that contaminate your character and rob you of the fullness of life? Take a moment to identify just one area. Maybe it’s pride, gluttony, lust, overspending, rage, worrying, cross-dressing (wait, that’s twice in one chapter), guilt, depression, conflict-you name it. Do you really want to be unstuck from this area? Before you answer too quickly ... think about it. I’ll do the same. Hmm ...
Wouldn’t we actually miss that feeling of power that comes from controlling other people’s lives? Oh, we say we don’t want to be controlling, but it feels pretty good once in a while ...
Aren’t we at least a little fond of that adrenaline rush that accompanies our raging fits of explosive anger?
Do we really want to be free of our lust and the exciting sexual fantasies that come with it?
There’s something comfortable about being stuck. It’s like wearing an old pair of jeans that "fit just right" and you don’t want to get rid of them even though they’re old, messy, out of style, and stained. You put them on out of habit and do so without realizing it. Same with being stuck-sometimes it just feels good. Yet stuck is draining us, sucking us down. Or at the very least, it’s keeping us from a fresh start. One of the crazy things about us is that the very bog in which we get stuck-full of nasty sludge that’s destroying our lives-is actually incredibly difficult to leave behind. In fact, we often don’t want to!
Our questions and reservations about change seem sincere, but could it be that they are simply excuses in disguise? Have you ever found yourself saying anything like the following?
"I know I’m supposed to read the Bible and pray, but I’m just so busy now-I don’t have time to be the Christian I want to be. What am I supposed to do?"
"I’d love to teach a Sunday school class, but if anyone ever found out what I do sometimes, they’d never let me teach again. How can I stop this sin?"
"I know I should be a more loving parent, but have you ever spent time with my kids?! Whoa, baby, what they need is a strong kick in the pants! How can I ever quit yelling at them?"
"I really should be kinder to my husband, but this is just the way I am. He just needs to realize this is who he married-I am what I am. Or can there be a better way to handle this marriage?"
"I feel so miserable today. I know that God loves me, but I just feel like a big mistake all the time. I can’t get it right, and I feel so guilty about it. Is this truly the abundant life God promised?"
So what’s the answer? How do we find a fresh start when we don’t know how to change-or, if we’re honest, don’t even want to change?
The key to a fresh start begins with something you may never have thought of before. It’s called sanctification. That’s a big theological concept, but don’t let it scare you, because it can become a great friend when you understand it. To put it into a relatable picture, sanctification is about as straightforward as taking a nap.
How We Catch Out Z's
Think about sleep. If you’ve ever been around kids, you know that when they reach a certain age, they tend to resist it.
Parents say, "Go to sleep."
Kids answer back, "But I’m not sleepy."
Actually, the kids have got something there. Sleep is one of those ethereal, uncontrollable things in life. None of us can go to sleep by pure determination alone. We can’t just decide to sleep and then sleep. Like, "Okay ... I’m sleeping now." Click. Zzzzzzz.
The key is cooperation. I always assured my kids that even though they didn’t feel sleepy, if they would just cooperate and do certain things to open themselves up to sleep, soon enough, they’d sleep.
So what did I encourage my children to do? I’d have them lie down on a soft mattress, turn out the lights, and close their eyes; and then I’d force them to listen to one of my sermons ... and, sure enough, sleep would come. It always happened. Night after night after night.
We can’t control sleep, but we are not helpless in the process either. We cooperate with sleep-that is, we submit ourselves to the conditions that will take us there-so that sleep can come, changing us from grizzly bears to well-rested teddy bears. That’s a picture of how sanctification works. We can’t control change, but we can cooperate with God-then He can turn us from our ways to His ways. That’s sanctification.
sanctification (n): the act or state of being purified and freed from sin
Sanctification is always a good thing. It means that no matter how stuck we are, God always welcomes us to a fresh start with the potential of change. God loves us too much to let us stay stuck in the mud. He wants us to be the people we were always meant to be. God doesn’t simply want to fine-tune our manners either-He wants to change our characters from the inside out.
What's in a Name?
Throughout the Bible, God reveals Himself by several different names. One of the names I love the most is Jehovah M'Kiddish. It means "I am the God who likes to kid around"-just "kiddish." Actually, it means "I am the God who sanctifies you," or, put another way, "I am the God who frees you from sin." And that’s exactly what happens. The apostle Paul tells us that "those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun!" (2 Cor. 5:17 NLT).
Read that last bit again ... The old life is gone. A new life has begun-that’s the fresh start we want! And the good news is that a fresh start is not just reserved for the moment we trust Christ with our lives; it’s always available. So think of what sanctification can mean. Instead of discontent, we get joy. In place of insecurity, God gives peace. As opposed to bitterness, He offers goodness. Instead of lust, God shows us how to love. Instead of those mean streaks we once had, God plants and develops patience in our hearts. And that rage? God transforms it to gentleness ... The list of good things goes on and on. That’s the type of good God we’re talking about here-Jehovah M'Kiddish, the God who sets us free and gives us a fresh start. He changes us, transforms us, because He only wants what’s best for our lives.
So, back to the sleep illustration. How does a person cooperate with God in the sanctification process? Great question! Let me give two false extremes that people believe ... and then we’ll look at what the Bible teaches.
First false extreme: "God, You do all the work, while I go do whatever I want." In other words, it’s God’s job to transform my messed-up life. Meanwhile, I don’t stand accountable. I’ll just "keep on keepin' on," going about life as usual (sin and all)-waiting obediently (or not) for Him to wave His magic wand and get me "unstuck." I have some areas of my life that I don’t really want to change (that I know I should); and if they are going to change, it’s going to have to be all God.