Staten Island’s claim to fame for many years was as the location of the world’s largest dump. For more than half a century, our communities were plagued by its foul presence. We were forced by distant and calloused political powers to accept the daily reality of air pollution and smog. Only when there were indisputable and geographically correlated spikes in cancer and asthma was any serious action taken to close our backyard environmental nightmare.
Smog is a sneaky toxin; it creeps into the atmosphere of a city slowly and subtly. For decades it silently ravages lungs, weakens immune systems and engenders cancer. A decline in air quality is difficult for the average citizen to discern. Often no action is taken until the medical condition of the entire region is compromised.
I believe that there is kind of smog that poisons our souls and our spirit. It, too, is subtle and slow—not a repulsive stench or a gust of foul wind that would warn us but a deadly carbon monoxide of the soul that asphyxiates us while we think we are just fine. These three types of spiritual smog are particularly dangerous: intimidation, condemnation and laziness.
I have experienced deeply and profoundly the awesome power of God. If the enemy of our souls were to challenge my confidence in God’s omnipotence, I would rise up like young David to say: “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Sam. 17:26b).
But when I drive around New York, my sprawling, diverse city of a thousand cities; when I delve into the unspeakable abuse and brokenness of just one of my church members; when I read the statistics; when I hear the politicians mock the things of God and see so many leaders in the Church plagued by division and sin—the air quality in my spirit stumbles into a downward spiral. My prayers get smaller. My dreams get pared down and my visions get a reality check. The smog of intimidation begins to infect even the Most Holy Place.
I was rescued recently from this smog attack when the Lord brought to my mind Joshua and Caleb, who, along with 10 others, were asked to report on what they had seen during a reconnaissance mission to the land of Canaan. Their fellow spies filled the people with fear:
. . . the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Num. 13:31–33).
The report was so discouraging that the Israelites were ready to appoint a leader who would take them back to Egypt, the land of their bondage. Then Joshua and Caleb intervened.
Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes and said to the entire Israelite assembly, “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them” (Num. 14:6–9).
Ten of the 12 spies sent to scout the Promised Land came back from Canaan intoxicated by fear. They actually became passionate fear mongers, saying in essence: “God has delivered us from Egypt, brought us across the Red Sea, destroyed the armies of Pharaoh, fed us with bread from heaven in the desert, gave us water from a stone, led us to a land flowing with milk and honey all because we are the butt of one of His most epic and wicked jokes.”
A holy rage rose within me as I realized my heart was being drawn into the dangerous, faithless vortex of the 10 spies. As I identified and renounced this spirit of intimidation, I felt an infusion of joy and authority. My prayer life was instantaneously transformed. As I abandoned my earthbound, strategy-centered prayers, I felt that I sat once again as a joint heir, seated in heavenly places with Christ Jesus, above all rule and authority, power and dominion, nations and cities.
There is power in the name of Jesus to break every chain, to transform every nation. There is no appreciable difference between the land of Canaan and a city like mine (or yours). Our King holds the universe in His hands and declares that all the nations weigh less than a speck of dust before Him. He has said: “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession” (Psalm 2:8).
I never want to be found in the fellowship of the 10 spies. I never want to dishonor and betray the heart of the King of Glory with fearful faithlessness. I never want to be found among those who call Him a liar and a promise breaker. God forbid that we should disgrace Him with a rebellious, cowardly heart.
A young man told me recently about a revelation that he had, and since that time I have seen an amazing change in his countenance and spirit. “I always believed in God,” he said, “but I never thought God liked me, ’cause I was such a screwup.”
That’s not the first time I’ve heard a statement like that. I’ve listened to saints in the faith for many years say, “I know God loves me, but I don’t think He likes me.” Or, “I know God loves everyone, but I don’t think He really thinks about me much.”
Most people who think this way are “saved” and often serving faithfully in the Kingdom. These conversations usually surface casually, while church members are serving together at an outreach banquet or helping out in an after-school program. On the surface, everything seems OK in their lives, but they are dying inside; they are broken and lonely, trying to win favor and a pat on the back from God by working harder.
Here is the crux of the matter: We don’t like to hang out with people who don’t like us. Maybe we can pull off “polite,” but there is no craving for a deeper relationship. If we are always living under the furrowed brow of our Father in Heaven, we are doomed. Clearly, “apart from Him, we can do nothing.” Life is incredibly challenging, with many disturbing twists and turns. To finish the course well, we must be comfortable with God, at ease and at home with our Heavenly Father.
How could we ever expect power and transformation in prayer when we have difficulty experiencing intimacy with Christ? The Scriptures are clear: oneness is God’s ultimate desire for His relationship with us, the Church and with all creation.
The Book of Revelation informs us that day and night Satan accuses us, ever seeking to keep the bride from glorious oneness with the Bridegroom. Tragically, many of us are playing into his head games and lies, making Satan’s job easier than it should be.
Hundreds die every year when an oil burner or furnace malfunctions, sending deadly carbon monoxide into homes. The unseen gas can fill a room—and our lungs—without detection. It clings to our hemoglobin cells, disabling their capacity to transport life-giving oxygen. Similarly, has your blood been poisoned by accusation and condemnation? Even the slightest concentration of condemnation is deadly.
My mother grew up in Korea, and her family was quite wealthy. One day a beggar woman approached the gate of her home and asked for food. My mother and her friend made her a rice ball but packed mud in the center as a cruel joke. When the woman bit into the mud, she cursed my mother severely. My mother recalled that story whenever difficult times befell our family. Although she was a passionate follower of Christ, the curse of condemnation haunted her. Like an athlete whose lungs have been compromised, her capacity to overcome the greatest hurdles in her life were often sabotaged by guilt and shame when she most needed the power and comfort of intimacy with God.
Let the sprinkled blood of Christ breathe life once again into your soul. Boldly approach your King and your Beloved, for “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).” Let nothing separate you from His love ever again.
Justice is getting what we deserve. Mercy is not getting what we deserve. Grace is getting the opposite of what we deserve. It is unmerited, unearned, undeserved favor and blessing, lavished on us by the Father: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). This is the greatest news ever, but there has always been a backdoor attack that distorts this blessing: laziness.
Just as the chokehold of condemnation can send us down a road of powerlessness and isolation, an immature, irresponsible understanding of grace can lull us into laziness. From the earliest days of the Church until the present, the blessing of unmerited favor has attracted a mighty throng of theological opportunists. Paul addressed the issue in his letter to the Romans, answering his own question—“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (6:1)—with a response that, contextualized for New York City, might be: “What are you, outta your mind?”
Once again, this smog is not a full frontal assault; it feels more like a nap coming on than a bomb going off. Laziness in prayer is inexcusable. If the mayor of my city, imbued with great power and authority, went to his office and played Angry Birds instead of using his position to bring about change, I would be incensed. Yet, I have often been guilty of nurturing a lazy prayer life while using unmerited favor to anesthetize my guilt.
As I drove home from church recently, I saw “Nicky.” Thirty-five years old, he has been addicted to crack, marijuana and various street drugs for more than 20 years and homeless for about a decade. I remember shooting hoops with him when he was 14, just before he started down this horrible road. He always asks for a handout; I don’t give him money, but I try to get him a bite to eat whenever I can.
I suddenly realized that I hadn’t believed God for a miracle in his life for the past 15 years. As I prayed for him that day, I experienced my double-minded, half-believing, impotent prayers dissolve as I bound the work of Satan and welcomed the deliverance of God for this tortured captive. Nicky knew it, I knew it, Satan felt it and God rejoiced that faith had replaced my cynical, resigned, unbelieving, smog-infected prayers.
One of the most disturbing passages in Scripture states: “the men of Ephraim, though armed with bows, turned back on the day of battle” (Psalm 78:9). On all fronts, in every nation, it is the day of battle.
The combination of intimidation, condemnation and laziness at any concentration is a deadly cocktail. Let it never be said of any of us that we had faith like the 10 spies, that our minds were easily warped by the deceiver or that our hearts were cowardly and lazy like the men of Ephraim. We have been made more than conquerors through Him who loved us. Let us fix our eyes, our hearts and our minds fully upon Him and run with perseverance the race marked out for us.