VIRTUES: Freedom From Within (Detachment) by Gary L. Thomas

Embracing the Virtues of Christ

Freedom From Within (Detachment) by Gary L. Thomas

From: The Glorious Pursuit

If you desire to undertake a devout life, you must not only cease to sin, but also cleanse your heart from all affections to sin.  Souls that are recovered from the state of sin, and still retain these affections, eat without joy, and drag themselves along rather than walk.  They do good, but with such a spiritual heaviness that it takes away all the grace from their good exercises.
(Francis de Sales)

For me, the saddest flowers in all the world will always be yellow roses.

The last time I purchased them was twenty years ago, after the fifth or sixth breakup with “Sharon.”  Yellow roses were her favorite.

Sharon and I were involved in a tempestuous relationship during high school, and, try as we might, we could never quite declare it at an end.  I was much too immature to maintain a long-term relationship, but I was also too immature to detach myself emotionally from Sharon.

I felt so guilty that every time we decided to end the dates, I went out of my way to express to Sharon how special I thought she was – beginning with the yellow roses.  And, of course, as these things happen in high school, that was inevitably followed by Sharon being reminded what a great guy was.  And since I thought she was so special and she thought I was so great, maybe we ought to give it “just one more try….”

It is one thing to be surrendered.  It is another thing entirely to be detached.  Surrender is an act of the will, accepting physical circumstances or situations God has ordained and looking for his good purpose in them.  Detachment means we stop finding our meaning and security in people, things, positions, money, and power so they no longer lure us into actions we know are unwise or unprofitable.

The most famous verse on detachment is probably Matthew 6:33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  Jesus is saying that the focus and passionate attachments of the believer will seem radically at odds with those of the world.  Detachment is the attitude that helps us cooperate with God’s work as he shapes our desires, so we come to rest in the knowledge that what is truly valuable to the soul can only be given by God himself: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

Freedom From Within

Every day, out-of-order and out-of-control appetites hold us in their grip, some to a lesser extent, some greater.  John of the Cross teaches that uncontrolled appetites wound us in two ways: They deprive us of experiencing and enjoying God’s Spirit, and they “weary, torment, darken, defile, and weaken” us.

An undisciplined inner life – one that is attached to the world even as it seeks to fight it – is misery defined.  Some of us live spiritually like a person on a diet who has a freezer full of Häagen-Dazs ice cream.  If you’re serious about the diet, you’ll get the ice cream out of the house, right?  Otherwise, you’ll simply make yourself miserable.  We halfheartedly want to follow God and live holy lives, all the while surrounding ourselves with temptation.

We need to understand the mechanics of spiritual temptation.  Sometimes, errant desires can become so strong that the desire itself becomes the issue.  Even more than the object, the desire becomes the idol and motivating force.  Once we finally do give in, we’re surprised again, the desire for the object, more than the object itself, is what tripped us up and caused us to sin – to misuse a person or a thing for our own aggrandizement or to fill some inner void which, ironically, never can be filled.

For several years, I worked in a ministry that reached out to pregnant women.  Time and again, we heard the same thing: a young woman didn’t really want to begin premarital sex, but she did want intimacy.  So she traded her body and never got what she wanted in return.  All too often, she felt cheapened and used.  Her desire for sex, or for the secure relationship she thought it would give her, was a long way from what the sex experience actually delivered.

If you’ve been caught in the illusions produced by those taunting, tantalizing soul poisons, then you need to experience the freedom and new strength God releases in you when you begin to practice the virtue of detachment.

Let’s be practical and honest: It is extremely difficult for us to deny ourselves what we truly desire.  The great Reformed writer, John Owen, points out, “He hates not the fruit, who delights in the root.”  We might have sporadic success at staying away from something that has captivated our heart, but it is unlikely we will have consistent success.

To stop feeding on harmful things, we need to consider our improper appetites: “When the appetites are extinguished – or mortified – one no longer feeds on the pleasure of these things.”

Modern evangelicalism can become so focused on stopping a sinful behavior that we can lose the practical nature of virtue.  We want to stop sinning without examining and freeing ourselves from the root desires that are disordered.  To be free from sin, we need to look at the internal cause rather than just focus on the action.  When a Christian falls today, ninety-nine percent of the spiritual effort is spent trying to control the “stumbling” – that is, we focus on outer strategies to help us avoid the situations in which we sin.  A young dating couple will be told never to be alone together; an alcoholic will be warned away from bars or liquor stores.  But if the heart is bent by an appetite that leads to sin, all the external discipline agreed upon in moments of strength will wilt in the heat of desire.

Iron will – external discipline that creates physical distance but not spiritual deliverance – will meet with only limited success.  John of the Cross explains, “We are not discussing the mere lack of things; this lack will not divest the soul if it craves for all these objects.  We are dealing with the denudation [we’ll explain this word in a moment] of the soul’s appetites and gratifications.  This is what leaves it free and empty of all things, even though it possesses them.  Since the things of the world cannot enter the soul, they are not in themselves an encumbrance.  Rather, it is the will and appetite dwelling within that cause the damage when set on these things.”

By denudation, John means a nakedness of spirit.  God “strips us” of errant longings that lead us into corruption.  For our part, we refuse to clothe ourselves with appetites or longings for these things.  How?  By allowing God to show us how the things we crave never can fill, or cover, the emptiness within, until we long to be clothed in his presence, his will, his purpose, and his character.

If you have been fighting sin unsuccessfully, in large part because while you offer up the action, you can’t stop the craving, then you need the virtue of detachment.  This virtue begins when we turn our eyes from the created to the Creator.

Chains of Silk

In Victorian novels, romantic tensions often occur when a member of the upper class falls in love with a member of the lower class.  Back then, to love someone beneath you in society was considered poor taste.  Rather than elevating the person in the lower class, it tended to deflate the reputation of the person from the upper class.

John of the Cross argues that when we love the created over the Creator, we do the same thing: we lower ourselves to the level of what we love.  Just as we are raised when we are enraptured by God, so we devalue ourselves when we desire lesser things.  “Anyone who loves a creature, then, is as low as that creature and in some ways even lower because love not only equates but even subjects the lover to the loved creature.”

When we love something God has created more than we love God himself, we not only set ourselves up for huge disappointment, but we also set ourselves up to sin against God, over and over.  This is the tragedy of our sin: “Since nothing equals God, those who love and are attached to something other than God, or together with him, offend him exceedingly.”

God offers us spiritual fulfillment, true character transformation, joy, peace – all the intangible blessings that mean the most.  But we become fixated by anything else – everything else!  Instead of interior peace, meaning, freedom, and fulfillment, we crave things that excite the mind, ego, and flesh for a brief moment.  And God, who can satisfy every true need, is standing beside us, waiting for us to receive his infilling, while we set our desire on baser things.

Imagine the satisfaction of a life in which all your holy needs are met by a loving, gracious, generous, and merciful God.  There is no danger of manipulation here.

I know a young man who was addicted to heroin.  The reason the HIV virus spreads so rapidly among drug abusers is that they often share needles to shoot up immediately after buying a drug.  Why?  Because they want to make sure the drugs they are buying are genuine, and the only way to do that is to try them out.

The mere thought of buying something to inject into my body when I can’t trust the person who is selling it to me is terrifying – but that’s the nature of the drug business.  It’s a manipulative and fearful enterprise.

Not so with God.  There is no danger of manipulation, no chance that he won’t give us the real thing.  If our desire is for him, we won’t be disappointed.  Our needs will be met – maybe not in the way that we anticipated, but in the way that is best for the long-term health of our souls.

Imagine the change that might take place in your relationship with others if your deepest needs were being met by a benevolent, ever-present God.  You would no longer need to make wearying demands on a spouse.  You could become a lover, instead of demanding one.  If you were frustrated in your relationship with your parents, you could stop asking for something they couldn’t really give, and instead find acceptance and true love from your Heavenly Father.  If you were a parent, instead of burdening your children with your own expectations, hopes, and ego needs, you could concentrate on equipping them  to become who God made them to be.

Demands ruin relationship.  Unfulfilled demands turn relationships into a living hell and make us miserable.  Unfortunately, it never occurs to most of us to learn how to have God fulfill our needs.

Detachment means that you relinquish every demand you place on things and other created beings – even legitimate ones.  Demands are nothing more than spiritual chains.  François Fénelon warns, “Golden chains are no less chains than are chains of iron.”  It doesn’t matter what binds you as long as it binds you.  Whether the cords you are entangled with are made of silk or nylon; whether your yoke is made of steel or a beautiful piece of oak; whether your cage is rusted or polished, imprisonment is hell, and your demands are the bars that hold you.

“The road and ascent to God, then, necessarily demands a habitual effort to renounce and mortify the appetites; the sooner this mortification is achieved, the sooner the soul reaches the top.  But until the appetites are eliminated, one will not arrive no matter how much virtue one practices.”

The Power of Detachment

How can we experience the virtue of detachment?  It is an impossible task to slowly disengage ourselves from every errant passion.  What we need instead is a powerful war of engagement, which we find by attaching ourselves to something else.

When I proposed to my wife, out of love for her I was rejecting every other woman.  My affection for Lisa was such that it eclipsed any other romantic interest.  Intense love for something inevitably leads to rejection of something else.  “A more intense enkindling of another, better love (love of one’s Heavenly bridegroom) is necessary for the vanquishing of the appetites.  By finding satisfaction and strength in this love, one will have the courage and constancy to deny readily all other appetites.”

One of the surest (but not, admittedly, one of the most mature or most advisable) ways for me to have broken my emotional attachment with Sharon in high school would have been to “fall in love” with someone else.  It’s easier to leave something if you believe you’ve found something better.  As humans, we don’t exist very well in vacuums; we’re sucked one way or the other by our passions, so – spiritually speaking – instead of seeking a passionless existence, we need to more intensely focus our affections.  John of the Cross points out that the lure of the world can be so strong that “if the spiritual part of the soul is not fired with other more urgent longings for spiritual things,” the soul won’t be able (or it will simply lack the courage) to deny its appetites for the wrong things.

I travel a lot, and there are plenty of temptations on the road.  I’ve heard of many well-known Christian men who refuse to travel alone for this very reason.  If somebody books them for a speaking engagement, they require two airline tickets.  But what about the salesman from IBM whose boss won’t allow such an expense?  I wrote an article for a magazine on this very topic, and one of the things I found when talking to others was the fear that some men have before they leave.  The entire trip can be reduced to, “Will I or won’t I fall?”

This is an example of a defensive war.  God wants more than for us to “not fall” during a business trip.  He desires that we be productive, enjoy our time, grow in him, and perhaps develop some new relationships.  If we’re obsessed with “not falling,” these won’t happen.

Instead of fighting a defensive war, go on the offensive.  You may want to try to replace your particular obsession with a healthy passion.  I suggest this because we don’t learn detachment all at once.

One of the things I’ve done is develop a passion in which I can include God.  It’s not a religious exercise by any means, but it’s a relaxing activity.  When I first became interested in becoming a book scout, I viewed all the places I traveled to as locales that might contain that elusive, neglected, and underpriced first edition book.  A book scout goes to used bookstores, antique stores, estate sales, and the like, trying to find (in my case) certain modern first editions that are recognized as collectibles.

By the time I give my presentation, exercise, and comb the city for any and all underpriced books, I barely have enough time to catch the plane back home.  I can “detach” myself from temptation on the road by “attaching” myself to an enjoyable pursuit.   I can create pleasurable memories of character-rich used bookstores rather than litter my life with sinkholes of regret.

This “offensive” principle works just as well at home.  Instead of giving in to greed, give something away and experience the pleasure of generosity.  Instead of reveling in lust, take time out of your busy schedule to appreciate true beauty.  Instead of falling into another addiction, get together with someone and begin discussing how you can make positive changes in your life so that the need for escape becomes less acute.

By repenting of and relinquishing the old desire, we can train ourselves to feed off the new, more noble desire.  The enjoyment of our “replacement” may not be immediate, but keep in mind that affection is built over time.  If you have fed off an illicit practice for a while, it will take some time to learn to live without it; you can’t expect the desire to immediately die.  This is where discipline can be marginally helpful, for habits become less forceful the longer we stay away from them.

We need to cover all these activities with a proper romance toward God.  Many Christians struggle with their desire for God largely because they’ve never been taught how to love him; or when they are taught to relate to him, they’re given a simplistic formula (such as a quiet time – twenty minutes of prayer, twenty minutes of worship, twenty minutes of Bible study, every morning).  While this discipline can be helpful, it’s rarely sufficient to meet our deep-seated longings.  We need to expand our understanding of prayer.

Most of the people reading this book are likely to have spent time reading the Bible, expanding their mental understanding of God.  You’ve also probably listened to sermons, maybe even gotten a degree in theology.  But have you learned how to increase your adoration of God?  What have you done to build your heart’s passion toward the Almighty?

The idea is to build a complete life with constructive recreation and meaningful work and relationship so the yearnings that so often lead to sin have less of a place in our lives. This is part of the ancient practice of mortification – removing the cause of sin even before temptation strikes.  The ancients recognized that while it is possible to deny strong desires, it is more productive to empty these desires before they present themselves.

The Good Trade

In sixteenth-century Spain, a man named Nicolas became exceedingly wealthy, and in those days, that meant exceedingly powerful as well, Nicolas loved and sought money, and he made more of it in banking and financial transactions than other men made in peddling goods and services.

Nicolas’s skill became so pronounced that an archbishop asked him to patch the shaky hull of the archbishopric’s financial ship.  Nicolas had it floating so well and so quickly that even the king took notice and invited Nicolas into his court.  The king reasoned that what Nicolas could do for God, he could also do for God’s servant.  His Royal Highness.

Nicolas increased the king’s holdings to such an extent that he became a daily presence at court.  By the age of thirty-seven, Nicolas had reached the highest strata of society.  He could afford anything he wanted, and his words were taken seriously by the highest powers in the land.  Then he met a tiny, penniless, balding, and seemingly powerless man, whose teachings we have already encountered – John of the Cross.

In league with a nun named Teresa of Ávila, John had started a new order of Carmelites, known for their austerity, poverty, and simple rule of life.  While Nicolas had everything after which most people aspire, John lived the common man’s worst nightmare – he wore no shoes, he traveled cross-country with minimal clothing and often without food, and he was pledged to sexual abstinence.

Yet after meeting John, Nicolas left the court, gave away his money, and entered the Discalced (shoeless) Carmelite order.  The man who once walked on palace floors now by choice walked barefoot on the stony, sometimes snowy, roads of Spain.

Nicolas responded to the same call that led fishermen to drop their nets and follow Jesus.  It was the same inner detachment that centuries later would lead my friend Bob Patton to change his career when he was just reaching his prime as a professor.

Throughout the centuries, Christians have found great meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in spurning the very things that so many people crave.  But it would be a gross distortion to define Nicolas’s new life by what he left behind.  The truth is, he embraced something even better, and that’s the real key to detachment.  By opening his heart to adopt the spirit and attitudes of Jesus Christ, he began removing himself from the lusts of the flesh.  His heart was touched by prayer in a way it was never touched by gold, power, or influence.

Detachment is about far more than merely abstaining from sin.  Its practice begins with the delight of our soul, Jesus Christ.  When we look at the model of Christian living – Christ himself – we can immediately see how central detachment was to his existence.

Jesus detached himself from Heaven and became man.  He detached himself from his parents to take up the public ministry of the Messiah.  He detached himself from his people’s favor to become their Savior.  He detached himself from life on Earth to die for our sins.  He detached himself from spiritually experiencing his Father’s presence so he could become sin for us.

Everything that matters most, Christ gave up.  And he is the model for how we live the faith.  Do you want to experience Jesus in a new way?  Look for him in the virtue of detachment.

God calls us to learn detachment, and it is no shame to admit we are still in kindergarten where this is concerned.  Most of us struggle with petty sins, jealousies, and attitudes that make us miserable.  This is where I suggest we begin: by allowing God to search our hearts and show us truthfully what it is we are craving.

The detached Christian is the one who experiences inner freedom.  Shorn of ambition, greed, jealousy, avarice, gluttony, lust, or manipulation, the detached Christian is able to enjoy a new dimension of happiness very few ever find in this world.  Ironically, spiritual detachment is the only way to truly enjoy the physical world, which God made for our pleasure.  Without the gap we build by detachment between us and created things, our desire for the objects and pleasures of this world will overstep its bounds.  Our enjoyment always will be reduced to unsatisfied craving.

There is so much strength to be found in detachment.  We learn to let go, not just of the action of sin, but of the desire that drives us.  Fall in love with God and let him shape your desires.  Refuse to feed off errant passions, and allow God to give you your life back from the cravings and pinings that have distressed you thus far.

But how? you ask.  How do I “delight myself in the Lord”?  As you may be comprehending at this point, the virtues of Christ do not stand alone; they build on each other.  To truly experience the freedom of detachment, we must grow in the spiritual virtue of attachment – the virtue of love.




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