THE DISTANT COUNTRY
Quick tip: don't ask the bookstore clerk for directions to the self-help
Ironically, you're better off helping yourself find the self-help
section. I recently made the mistake of walking into a bookstore and
asking where the self-help section was located. The store clerk,
initially disinterested and dazed, perked up and stared at me. I think
he was trying to ascertain exactly what parts of my self needed help. I
started to feel insecure, because I know there are plenty of ways my
self needs help.
Finally, he pointed me toward a section in the back of the store that
was actually like an entire region. In fact, I would say they had
dedicated one-fourth of the store to all manner of self-help guides.
I perused the aisles, discovering new things about myself that needed
help. There were titles like How to Make People Like You in 90
Seconds or Less, Becoming a Better You, and Influence: The Psychology of
Persuasion. It was overwhelming. I fled the self-help section,
doubts about my mental and physical health nipping at my heels.
Most 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 life transformation are
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 reported there are at
least 45,000 self-help books in print.
Despite these thousands of fix-it guides, most of us would readily admit
we still need help. Survey the shelves of our bookstores. The most
popular topics: diet and exercise, improving your marriage, getting
control of your finances, stress management, and overcoming your
addictions. And these books, despite their different topics and titles,
have such similar taglines and formulas that when I walked around the
self-help shelves, I felt like all the authors had been at the same Mad
Follow our (PICK A NUMBER BETWEEN 1–8) easy steps, and
we guarantee you will (INSERT FINANCIAL GAIN, WEIGHT LOSS GOAL, OR
RELATIONAL STATUS) in only a matter of (PICK A NUMBER BETWEEN
1–5) (INSERT A MEASUREMENT OF TIME).
But because we are all too aware that our selves need help, we are often
quick to jump on this misery merry-go-round of trying six steps to
better our lives and expecting 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.
If you picked up this book because you are trying to help yourself make
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.
So let me be clear: AHA is not a self-help process. It's the antithesis
of a self-help book. What Bizarro is to Superman, this book is to the
self-help genre. This journey begins with a rejection of your self's
offer to help.
The Story of AHA
Instead of self-help, we are asking for God's help, because AHA is a
spiritual experience that brings about supernatural change. More
specifically, let's define the word aha this way: "a sudden
recognition that leads to an honest moment that brings lasting change."
I love witnessing AHA. I see it almost every weekend at the
church where I serve. I listen to people as they tell about the
spiritual awakening they have experienced. In that moment there was a
beautiful collision. At just the right time, a person's life collides
with God's Word and the power of the Holy Spirit, and everything
When Jesus taught about this spiritual transformation, He would most
often tell stories. AHA can't be fully explained. There is a sense in
which it has to be experienced to be understood. So it's through stories
that AHA is best captured.
One woman told me about how she turned to impulsive eating to cope with
life. For her, there was nothing a day could throw at her that she
couldn't eat away. A stressful week of work would lead to a weekend of
third and fourth helpings. Facing anxiety due to an upcoming project,
she would bring home two or three desserts and eat them in one evening.
Despite trying every self-help diet and exercise fad, she reached 325
pounds. This seemingly unstoppable weight gain put her at a point of
dark depression, which only worsened her eating.
After months and months in the vicious cycle of binging and depression,
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
When she came to church, she heard a message from John 6 in which Jesus
described Himself as the "Bread of Life." She suddenly realized that she
had been trying to make food do for her what only Jesus can do.
That was four years and 170 pounds ago. But the outward change was
really just a by- product of the inner transformation she experienced
when her life collided with the gospel, and she started looking to Jesus
to fill the emptiness of her heart.
I was talking to a man whose life had been an ongoing struggle with
alcoholism. He tried to make changes many times. He went through
numerous self-help programs and had been through the twelve steps. They
helped for a season, but he was never really on the wagon long enough to
Over the years, he realized how much his drinking cost him, but even
when he thought he'd finally hit rock bottom, things managed to fall
even farther. One day he was listening to a sermon, and the pastor was
preaching from the passage where Paul says, "Do not get drunk on wine,
which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit" (Eph.
5:18). Immediately, this truth from God's Word opened his eyes: he had
been looking to alcohol to do for him what the Holy Spirit was meant to
When he was down and depressed, he would drink for comfort and peace,
but the Holy Spirit wanted to comfort him. When he was feeling insecure,
he would drink and feel a sense of security and boldness, but the Holy
Spirit wanted to fill him with courage and strength. When he was
uncertain about the future and what he should do next, he would drink to
help him cope, but the Holy Spirit wanted to guide and direct him in a
Though I have heard hundreds of AHA stories over the years, my favorite
is the one Jesus tells in Luke 15. It's commonly known as the parable of
the prodigal son. Charles Dickens famously called this parable "the
greatest short story ever told." But while it's a parable and not a
real-life story, it doesn't mean it isn't a story full of real life.
It's almost impossible to read this story without finding yourself in
There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father,
"Father, give me my share of the estate." So he divided his property
Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off
for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole
country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to
a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He
longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but
no one gave him anything.
When he came to his senses, he said, "How many of my father's hired
servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set
out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned
against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your
son; make me like one of your hired servants." So he got up and went to
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled
with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him
and kissed him.
The son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against
you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son."
But the father said to his servants, "Quick! Bring the best robe and put
it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the
fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this
son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." So
they began to celebrate.
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house,
he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked
him what was going on. "Your brother has come," he replied, "and your
father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went
out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, "Look! All these
years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you
never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.
But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with
prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!"
"My son," the father said, "you are always with me, and everything I
have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother
of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."
After studying this story in depth, I discovered that within this
parable, there are three ingredients that are present in every AHA
experience. So as we study this story together and travel with the
Prodigal Son on his journey, we will identify the three ingredients of
AHA in his life and pray for them in our own.
The Recipe for 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. When she cooks, there's typically more than
three ingredients involved. 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 my
culinary capacity. One of the things I've learned the hard way is that
when using The Three Ingredient Cookbook, all the ingredients are
necessary—no, absolutely vital.
This is the downside to The Three Ingredient Cookbook. You can't
cheat. If you use only two ingredients, it doesn't work very well.
The same is true for AHA.
I've listened to the AHA experiences of hundreds—if not
thousands—of people over the years. I've studied numerous
transformation experiences of key figures in the Bible. With striking
consistency, AHA always has three ingredients. If any one of these
ingredients is missing, it short-circuits the transformation process:
1. A Sudden Awakening
2. Brutal Honesty
3. Immediate Action
If there is an awakening and honesty, but no action, then AHA doesn't
If there is awakening and action, but honesty is overlooked, AHA will be
But when God's Word and the Holy Spirit bring these three things
together in your life, you will experience AHA—a God-given moment
that changes everything.
When I met Justin, he was desperate for AHA. He grew up in a Christian
home and attended a Christian school. His parents kept his hair short
and his curfew early. He became convinced that his sheltered life had
caused him to miss out. One year, Justin sat at home watching MTV
Spring Break, thinking about all the fun he should be having. So
after he graduated from high school, he packed his bags and headed for a
A distant country is the generic description of where the
Prodigal Son traveled after demanding his inheritance and leaving his
father. The Jewish audience that listened to this parable understood
that the "distant country" meant more than just a faraway place. Any
distant land would be considered Gentile land. The implication was
clear: the son wasn't just turning his back on his father; he was
turning his back on his faith entirely. More than just walking away from
his earthly father, we find that the Prodigal Son was walking away from
his heavenly Father.
You Are Here
Have you ever been a little lost in a mall or maybe at an amusement
park? You may have known where you were trying to go, but unless you
knew where you were starting from, it was impossible to figure out how
to get there. When you walked up to the giant map, the first thing you
tried to figure out was not your future destination but your current
location. Your eyes scanned the map looking for that familiar "YOU ARE
AHA begins with recognizing our current location. In one area or
another, all of us are in the Distant Country. The Distant
Country can be defined as any area of our lives where we have walked
away from God. It may be that every part of you is living in the Distant
Country, or it may just be a specific area of your life where you've
left God out. No Trespassing signs line the perimeter and make it clear
that God is not welcome.
It may help to pause here and identify areas of your own life that could
be described as Distant Country. Take a moment and give a specific
location for this general description. Write down the areas of your life
where God is not welcome:
LIST YOUR DISTANT COUNTRY HERE
How we ended up where we are isn't always clear. There are many reasons
why we leave the Father for the Distant Country, but the Bible says that
all of us will find ourselves there at some point. Isaiah 59 explains
that sin is what separates us from God. And Romans 3 tells us that all
of us have sinned. Sin is the vehicle that every one of us has taken to
the Distant Country.
Leaving the Father
I've discovered that what drives many travelers to the Distant Country
is that they are running away from a god that doesn't exist. For one
reason or another, their perception of God doesn't match up with
reality. They are rejecting a god they created rather than the true God
who created them.
Justin ran away from God and headed to the Distant Country because he
was sure God was an Unreasonable Father. Like the son in Luke 15,
Justin was convinced that staying with his father was causing him to
miss out. In this light, God becomes an unreasonable Father who has a
long list of rules that seem designed to take all the fun out of life.
I've heard God described as "The Great Cosmic Killjoy." Many people pack
their bags and head to the Distant Country because they are convinced
that God's way is too restrictive and His path too narrow. They see
God's boundaries as a fence that imprisons them rather than as a
guardrail that protects them.
Justin grew up in a very religious home. One of the reasons Jesus wasn't
a fan of religion is that religion reinforced rules using guilt and
shame. And Justin joined the large caravan of travelers leaving the
church in which they grew up to head to the Distant Country because they
thought of God not just as an unreasonable Father but 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. So why stick around and try?"
Maybe you grew up in a church that perpetuated this belief. Whenever you
heard about God in church, He always seemed frustrated with you.
Everything you heard about Him made you believe that whenever He looked
at you, He shook His head in disappointment. His rules and expectations
were unreasonable, and no matter how much effort you made, God never
seemed to be pleased.
Maybe you grew up feeling like your best was never good enough for God.
You brought home a B on your report card, but it should have been an A.
If you scored fifteen points in the basketball game, you should've
If you think of God as an impossible-to-please Father, at some point you
will quit trying to please Him altogether. What's the point of making
the effort if nothing you do is good enough?
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 seems to find pleasure in distributing
punishment. He's always watching and waiting for you to slip up, and
when He catches you, it won't matter how sorry you are—there will
be hell to pay—literally. If you were taught to fear God,
then you would naturally respond to Him by running away.
A few years ago, I came home from work to find that my wife and kids had
agreed to dog-sit for friends of ours. The dog's name was Pork Chop, and
everyone was excited about our new houseguest. But the first time 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 too 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.
Excerpted from "AHA: The God Moment That Changes Everything" by Kyle Idleman. Copyright © 2013 by Kyle Idleman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.