Thursday, November 4, 2010

They Took Offense at Scripture

As I pondered the title that came to me for the last post, I realized the passage of Scripture it comes from is a good illustration of people rejecting the truth from Jesus because it was foreign to what they already "knew" about spirituality and reality. If you read John 6:35-69, you see Jesus providing a radical teaching to people that caused many of them to be offended. Jesus said to them: "Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?" (John 6:61-62). In other words, if you react that way to this level of truth, how will you handle it if some of the glory of heaven itself is opened to you?

Scripture tells us that many of the disciples of Jesus turned back after this and no longer walked with Him. But the twelve remained, because as Peter said, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God." (John 6:68-69). By God's grace, they had the humility and dependence to recognize that only Jesus could help them understand real truth. If they rejected what He said because it alarmed them, they had nowhere else to turn for essential knowledge. And because they stayed and did not give up on His words, presumably they had the chance to get beyond the initial reaction and learn more fully what He meant. John even went on to write the very Gospel in which these teachings are recorded, and it stands as one of the deepest theological writings in the New Testament.

Do You Take Offense At This?

Can you feel it? The defensive attitude that creeps up in our hearts and minds as soon as the suggestion is raised that our understanding is very limited and flawed? It responds promptly with all sorts of objections, attempting to protect the belief that we are pretty good at figuring things out. It just can't be true that all the things we have taken the time to learn are that limited. We can't really be as ignorant of the world as children are! What a terrifying thought! Their knowledge leaves them so helpless and dependent, and so easy to take advantage of. We've matured far beyond that. We know much more about how the world works now. We've put a lot of thought into our beliefs and convictions and tested them many times.

Yes, and no. It's obviously true that we know more than children do. We find it very easy to correct them and we find their innocent efforts to understand things to be cute and even amusing. But we seem to have got hold of the idea that we are very far advanced in understanding now, and that there is not a lot of distance between us and very mature knowledge compared to the distance between us and what a child knows. That's our crucial mistake. We think that when we approach the Bible or learn to know God, we are adults. But when you consider how far above us in every way the Lord of all creation must be, then when you compare our relationship to children with what He knows, it makes us much more like the six-year-old explaining to his baby brother how he thinks the toilet works.

All our knowledge is valuable, and the time we took to gain it was well spent, but there is a great deal that still needs to be corrected and added to. The complexity of what we haven't learned yet is amazing. We have also gained a number of flawed ideas along the way just as we've gained true ideas. We may not like the realization that we are children in our understanding of reality, but it's true. There is so much that we don't know about the spiritual life that we depend heavily on someone to protect us and to provide for our needs just as children depend on others. If we don't approach God with the same attitude of dependence and trust that a child has for the parent that provides the child with the right food and warns the child that the stove is hot, we are not going to learn very much and we will get burned a lot.

Part of the reason we resist this is a lack of trust in God. Recognizing our own limitations forces us to depend on God, which is what the life of faith is all about. But we tend to feel threatened by the idea that we need to be dependent on anyone or anything - self-reliance and individuality are modern idols. That is why, in embracing our relationship with God, we have to learn to trust Him with everything instead of thinking we have life under control. We need to let go of the illusion that our knowledge is enough, and put our hope in God that He will take care of everything if we just listen to Him. It's Matthew 6:31-33 in action - seek first the kingdom of God, and He will provide everything you need.

We Must Think Like Children in Order to Learn from God

How does receiving the kingdom of heaven like little children change our thinking? Instead of starting with the assumption that what we already think we know is correct and reliable, we ought to start with putting our trust in God to teach us. A child has to be carefully guided by a parent in many ways every day in order to correct childlike misunderstandings and ideas that come from limited knowledge. Many things are simply beyond the child's understanding until the child grows older. So the child has to trust that the parent really knows what he or she is talking about. The child has to depend on the parent's knowledge as true and superior to what the child thinks.

If we honored God with this same sort of trust, then we would start with the conviction that what God tells us is correct and reliable. We would start by taking it as certain that what is written in the Bible is really true and accurate. If we really trust God as our Father and believe He tells us the truth, then we should be open to having our previous beliefs and convictions changed and refined by the more accurate and mature information in Scripture, instead of expecting Scripture to just fit in with what we already "know."

This is the way the fathers of the Church thought of it. Consider the way Paul talked to some of those he led: "But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh." (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). [That is, you are still thinking with a mind set on the flesh instead of a renewed mind.] And the author of Hebrews said: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil." (Hebrews 5:12-14). We are genuinely children in our relationship to God, and it is vanity for us to think of ourselves as anything else.

The Difference in Having a Christian Mind

Here's an example of the difference in having a mind renewed by Christ. One of the major breakthroughs I've experienced in studying the Bible and living life in Christ is the realization that people generally start with the wrong attitude toward understanding God. We tend to approach what's in the Bible with an attitude of confidence in what we already think we know about the world, and when any verse of the Bible or any doctrine seems to be in tension with what we think we already know, we look at it suspiciously and mumble, "Wait, now how can that be true?" In fairness, many of us try hard to examine these things and sort them out instead of just giving up. But often the problem is not with what the Scripture seems to say, but with the assumptions we are already holding on to.

If we are going to try to encounter and learn to understand an infinite God, who exceeds the universe and existed before time, common sense should tell us that He is going to blow away our expectations and be very different from what we suppose. It would be silly for us to think that when we learned anything about God, it would be just like things we already knew and we wouldn't have to correct any of our prior ideas. If we are to know the Lord at all, we are going to have to prepare ourselves for the fact that much of what we think we know will be shown to be very incomplete and flawed.

I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when He said that unless we receive the kingdom of God like little children, we will never enter it. (Matthew 18:1-4; Mark 10:14-15; Luke 18:16-17). Some interpreters conclude this means we have to receive the kingdom of God with the same helpless dependence with which children depend on parents for food and protection – we must do it relying entirely on God by trust, instead of thinking we can manage it somewhat on our own. I believe that's true, and I think that also implies that we must receive the kingdom of God with a childlike trust that acknowledges how little we really understand. We need to rely instead on the wisdom and judgment of God as a child relies on the guidance of a parent.

This is surely the right attitude to have toward God: instead of thinking we could understand all His reasons and commands if He just explained them, we ought to realize that the mind of the Lord is deeper and vaster than our mind can possibly take in. We shouldn't be surprised if some of the truths God reveals about reality are strange, confusing, or even shocking. Nor should it surprise us that some things are hard to understand and we can't figure them all out right away. We should look to our Father with trust, believing that He knows all of these things and understands them, and that He loves us and will lead us safely through them.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why We Need to Think

I've been working my way through messages from this year's Desiring God Conference, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God. One of the sanctified uses of an Mp3 player is filling your mind with edifying and wise thoughts while in the car, or when you're exercising, or when you're walking from point A to point B - time when you would otherwise just be daydreaming or obsessing about all the things you need to do. I've learned that my attitude in life is far more healthy if I redeem some time in this way each week. The craziness of the average day is not likely to produce much encouragement in my heart, so I need to deliberately feed myself with something encouraging that lifts my spirit or helps teach me more about how to fight the daily battle effectively.

To that end, part of what I love about this year's DG Conference is that it is not aimed directly at intellectuals or students. It is intended, like John Piper's book of the same name, to encourage all Christians to think and to use our minds to the glory of God. We aren't all called to be scholars, but every one of us does need to make use of our minds in living the life of faith.

As I was listening to Al Mohler's message, he made this point: "We as Christians must recognize that there is a crucial distinction between the regenerate mind and the unregenerate mind. ... [T]here once was a way we thought that we can no longer think." (See Romans 1:21)

In other words, we as Christians have learned something earthshaking that changes everything about life. We can't afford to act as if things haven't changed. We are aware now of a whole new dimension to life - the spiritual dimension - that changes why we live, how we treat people, and where we find strength and hope. If we don't consciously change the way we think so that we plan and decide and act based on this new understanding, then for all our spiritual rebirth we will be ineffective and frustrated. We will fail to embrace the tools God has given us to flourish in our Christian life, and we will continue to pursue a mindset that invites temptation and leaves us vulnerable to the life-destroying effects of sin. Christians must consciously think like Christians in order to thrive. I highly recommend Mohler's message and Piper's book as good ways to encourage that in ourselves.

"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." Romans 12:2

Sunday, October 10, 2010

How to Confront and Avoid Anxiety

As the last post explained, Battling Unbelief taught me to start focusing on God's promises and to put my trust in Him to keep them. If you want to overcome anxiety, you can't start by trying to ignore problems or by exerting "self-control" to stop being anxious. You have to find your peace by knowing the problem is being taken care of. You will always have problems and uncertainties to deal with in life, but anxiety comes from thinking we have to deal with them ourselves. God has promised us we don't have to. Jesus specifically said we shouldn't be anxious about tomorrow or about our needs, because our Father in heaven will take care of it all. (Matthew 6:25-33).

The first step is to believe God means what He says, and reject any feelings to the contrary. If you had a friend you deeply trusted, you would believe his or her word over the word of someone less reliable. Faith means showing God the same trust. We need to remember that our feelings and the circumstances around us are not in any way as reliable as the God who created us and who upholds the universe. I gradually began to respond to situations that made me anxious by resisting the anxiety and directing my thoughts to God's promises instead. I would focus on God's words instead of my thoughts and feelings, and on remembering that the fulfillment of these promises depends on God, not on me. Instead of driving faster or sitting up at night worrying over the next day's work, I needed to trust that things were in God's hands and He would take care of them.

I struggled with applying this because it seemed too easy - it seemed like I was just being lazy and putting off my own responsibilities onto God. Part of the deception of anxiety is the idea that everything really depends on what we do. But that is not a life of faith. The life of faith acknowledges that we are dependent on God, and that we can't succeed without Him. Jesus told His disciples: "...apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:5). Paul tells us that our very salvation "depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy." (Romans 9:16). And he told the Galatian church that if they received the Holy Spirit by faith, it was foolish for them to think that having begun by faith, they were now being perfected by their own work. (Galatians 3:1-7). The Christian life is a practice of depending on God by faith from beginning to end. We trust Him, and He shows His glory and faithfulness by always giving us what we need.

The more I practiced this, the more I discovered that I wasn't slipping in my responsibilities just because I was depending on God instead of my own anxious efforts. On the contrary, I began to be more faithful and more productive, and God proved His words true time and again by causing things to turn out well even when the circumstances looked anxious. My faith was strengthened by trusting God to keep His word, and I had a lot of freedom from the stress and tension I had carried around before. It wasn't a one-time cure; I still had to remember to practice this the next time a new anxiety came up. But living by faith has made me more productive and given me more peace of mind than ever before.

Anxiety Is Dangerous - And Avoidable

After somehow managing to successfully not post during the whole month of September, I want to jump back in by following up on the last post on how Martin Luther addressed anxiety. Since anxiety saps the joy out of many Christians, I want to share two realizations that have changed my life and explain how they helped: 1) anxiety comes from wrong thinking about God; and 2) anxiety is optional - it isn't a normal and necessary part of human life.

Regarding the first, I used to beat myself up when I was running late or when I didn't think I had put enough effort into something. I would pummel myself with thoughts about what was going to happen if I didn't pull out all the stops and somehow redeem the situation. This tended to put me in a high-stress, anxious state of mind that bordered on panic. Mercifully, a couple of years ago I began to realize that this practice of anxious self-reproach was accomplishing nothing. It wasn't helping me change my behavior. All it was doing was making me stressed and tense. I didn't know how to break out of the pattern, though, because it seemed irresponsible and apathetic to not be anxious and worked up when I was in a bad situation.

Part of the problem was that I had been unconsciously trying to use anxiety as a motivator - if I worked up enough stress and worry over something, hopefully it would push me into giving everything I had. By God's grace, I started to realize this and how useless it was. It was more than useless, too, because it left me stressed and irritable. In fact, Jesus warned that the cares of this world can choke out the Word of God and keep us from being fruitful. (Matthew 13:22-23). Anxiety is actually counterproductive. So instead, I started working on applying some things I learned from reading Battling Unbelief, a book by John Piper (you can also read the sermons he preached on this).

Piper introduced me to the surprising concept that anxiety was not just bothersome, but actually a form of distrust in God. Anxiety comes from not believing that God will faithfully watch over us and provide for us. It comes from believing that we have to take care of things ourselves or they won't get taken care of. So Piper calls anxiety a form of unbelief, a lack of faith in God's character. The cure for unbelief is faith - putting your trust in God to do what He has promised. This brought me to the second revelation: anxiety is unnatural for a Christian. It's a weakness of faith, and if we focus on building our faith, anxiety can be dispelled. Here's what happened when I tried applying this.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sunday Salt: Martin Luther Takes Aim at Anxiety

Just about everyone knows something about Martin Luther, but there are so many common ideas about him that they sometimes distort or obscure his real work and his real character. A good introduction to his life can be found here, and a short overview (albeit with typos) is available here. Many of his works can be read for free online, thanks to resources like Project Wittenberg.

One of Luther's great gifts - and great stumbling blocks - was his passion and boldness. The following quote from a letter he wrote to Philip Melanchthon in 1530 shows how he pulled no punches and cut straight through all the anxieties and cares that were preoccupying Melanchthon. Luther reminds him that the best way to defeat anxiety (instead of being defeated by it) is to take our eyes off our cares and fix them on God Himself (see Matthew 6:33).

"What good do you expect to accomplish by these vain worries of yours? What can the devil do more than slay us? What? I beg you, who are so pugnacious in everything else, fight against yourself, your own worst enemy, for you furnish Satan with too many weapons against yourself. Christ died once for our sins. He will not die again for truth and justice, but will live and reign. If this be true, and if He reigns, why should you be afraid for the truth? Perhaps you are afraid that it will be destroyed by God's wrath. Even if we should ourselves be destroyed, let it not be by our own hands. He who is Our Father will also be the Father of our children. I pray for you very earnestly, and I am deeply pained that you keep sucking up cares like a leech and thus rendering my prayers vain. Christ knows whether it comes from stupidity or the Spirit, but I for my part am not very much troubled about our cause. Indeed, I am more hopeful than I expected to be. God who is able to raise the dead is also able to uphold His cause when it is falling or to raise it up again when it has fallen or to move it forward when it is standing. If we are not worthy instruments to accomplish His purpose, He will find others. If we are not strengthened by His promises, where in all the world are the people to whom these promises apply?"

I came across this quote in a message from Dr. Al Mohler on courage in Christian ministry, and I recommend the three-part series as a good way to check whether we have true courage based on faith in the God who can do all things, or whether we are lowering our expectations and being too timid because we aren't trusting deeply enough in God's ability to overcome ever obstacle. Dr. Mohler recommended Luther's Letters of Spiritual Counsel as a great place to find encouragement from Luther's words. Many of the pages are available online at Google books.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sunday Salt: C.S. Lewis Exposes Our Legalistic Thinking

After this week's discussion of legalism, this quote from C.S. Lewis seems appropriate. Lewis hardly needs an introduction to many, but his life and his conversion are fascinating and well worth examining. A brief overview can be found here. Also, John Piper delivered this winter a thought-provoking and insightful analysis of the tremendous value of Lewis's thought as well as some important cautions about how we allow it to influence us. Piper's tribute to Lewis and his observations on some of the weak points in the way Lewis went about his work struck me as incredibly brilliant in the way they summed up the works of Lewis I have cherished over the past 14 years. The message will make you love Lewis more but also think more clearly about him.

Now, Lewis himself on how people go astray over setting up rules of behavior that go beyond the actual commandments about sin (although it is good for us to make personal decisions to stay away from some things if they tend to undermine our faith - see this earlier Sunday Salt):

"One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons - marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning."
- Mere Christianity, p. 76 (Touchstone edition; 1996).

Romans 14:1-6:
"As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Our Hope Is Not In Who We Are, But In Who God Is

Here is the antidote to the problem of legalism I described in the last post: Our identity does not come from our being good people. It comes from God being so gracious and full of love that He accepts us and forgives us, cleaning us off and making us able to stand before Him. And He did that by allowing Jesus to suffer in our place and take every ounce of our punishment - past, present, and future - for every wrong, hurtful, selfish, prideful, insensitive, or otherwise sinful thing we ever did or ever will do. It's done. And part of the implicit promise in Christ's death and resurrection is that God will make us like Christ one day - without sin. It doesn't depend on us; it depends only on Him and His faithfulness to keep the promises He has made to us. It's part of the package when you believe in Christ through faith.

This is where Scripture tells us to focus our hope for purity and obedience:

"Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it." 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

"And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ." Philippians 1:6

"Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen." Jude 24-25

"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." Philippians 2:12-13

"But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me." 1 Corinthians 15:10

"...that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?" 1 Corinthians 4:6-7

One of the key reasons that people act like legalists is that they are holding on tightly to a self-image that is based in thinking that, deep down, they really are good people. And in order to believe that you really are good, you have to believe you're capable of doing good things naturally and all on your own initiative. People cling to that because they fear the idea that they aren't really good inside. They think they can never have any hope or joy if that is true. But denying that you have a dishonest heart that desires sin and stubbornly trying to fight temptation on your own is only going to lead to the despair and hopelessness I described in the last post. You will end up with a bad self-image anyway, because you will feel that you must be a very lousy and wretched sort of person if you can't succeed in keeping God's commands.

The joy and freedom of Christianity is found in the realization that God knows you are sinful inside, and He still loves you anyway and still surrendered Christ to death on the cross to spare you any punishment. He loves you so much that He has taken upon Himself not only the punishment for your sin, but also the responsibility for keeping you from sin and teaching you to walk in the way of righteousness and life. Freedom is knowing that you don't have to strive and push yourself and shame yourself anymore to try to be good - you can just put your trust and hope entirely in God's power to work inside of you the right desires and the right actions.

This Message That I'm Not Good Is Discouraging

I described in a recent post our desire to think of ourselves as good and our resistance to accepting that we really aren't good. I summed it up this way: "One of the most subtle deceptions that keep us trapped in a pattern of sin is the idea that our hearts and minds are basically good and capable of doing the right thing if we just try hard enough. Too many people cling to this idea as a self-image, not wanting to accept that they are not good by nature." The result of this mindset is that we are ineffective in resisting sin. We try to do it with our will, and we end up stumbling over and over again.

Many people resist the idea that they are incapable of doing the right thing on their own, because it makes them feel discouraged and devalued. We don't like being told we're not "good." But I've found that what really fuels discouragement in me is not the knowledge that I have a deceitful heart that can't be trusted (Jeremiah 17:9), but instead the repeated failures of trying to be a "good person" by following rules. When you fall short - which you always will - you feel depressed and shameful. This is what Christians call legalism. It is one of the chief enemies of joy in the life of a believer.

You may think you already know about legalism, but it is much more subtle and hard to detect than many people realize. People often describe legalism as trying to "earn your salvation" - essentially, thinking that "if I obey well enough, God will accept me." And because of this definition, people can easily think they aren't being affected by legalism because they are putting their faith in Christ alone to save them. "I know I can't earn my salvation," they may think, "and I am trusting in Christ's death on the cross as the payment for my sins. So I'm safe from legalism."

But it is very possible - and surprisingly common - for those who have put their faith in Christ to end up acting like legalists afterwards. Paul had to address this in the Galatian church. After they believed in Christ by faith, he still had to correct them: "Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (See Galatians 3:2-3.) What often happens to Christians is that they believe in Christ as their sole Savior and the sole source of their forgiveness, but then they think that now that they have faith and are filled with the Holy Spirit, it is their job to work hard to obey God's commandments and to keep themselves pure. And so they start with faith, but end up trying to finish sanctification (the process of shedding old sinful ways and learning to walk in obedience to God) on their own strength through sheer willpower. This is something every Christian has to vigilantly watch out for, because it is a trap you can slip into even when you think you're very mature in your faith and thinking. In the next post I'll describe the antidote.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sunday Salt: Charles Simeon's Comfort in Suffering

Charles Simeon was the pastor of Trinity Church in Cambridge, England for 54 years (from 1782 until his death in 1836). John Piper has a very good biographical message about him that you can read, listen to, or download the audio for here. This quote is taken from Piper's message. It made a large impact on me when I read it, and the impact grew the more I learned about the kind of suffering and opposition Simeon faced during his 54 years of preaching and ministry. These words would not have nearly the same weight if they came from someone who had not experienced great struggle and suffering and difficulty. The encouragement in these words is that they come from a man who faced challenges and discouragements at least as difficult as anything most of us ever will, and he could still be content in the knowledge that His soul was secure in Christ. Piper's message has many more examples of how Simeon's faith and practices of devotion to God's Word and prayer kept him encouraged, and I commend it as very worthwhile reading.

A friend had asked Simeon how he had endured the opposition and strife in all his years of ministry. Simeon's reply:

"My dear brother, we must not mind a little suffering for Christ's sake. When I am getting through a hedge, if my head and shoulders are safely through, I can bear the pricking of my legs. Let us rejoice in the remembrance that our holy Head has surmounted all His suffering and triumphed over death. Let us follow Him patiently; we shall soon be partakers of His victory" (H.C.G. Moule, Charles Simeon, London: InterVarsity, 1948, 155f.).

Scriptures that come to mind: 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; Romans 8:16-18.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Sunday Salt: What John Wesley's Mother Taught Him

Sin likes to hide. That's one reason I believe it is so important to examine ourselves in order to discover where sin is lurking in our hearts. One of the chief enemies of our joy and our faith is the subtle desire for sin that our hearts hold on to and try to sneak around with. Our hearts disguise it with all sorts of seemingly innocent justifications, which is why it takes some self-examination and some scrutiny to root it out.

This is one of my favorite quotes on that process of identifying hidden sin and spotting habits that lead us away from God. Although I will likely post something from John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, in the future, today's quote is from his mother Susanna:

"Take this rule: whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself."
-- Susanna Wesley (Letter, June 8, 1725)

Wesley himself also has a very interesting story of conversion that fits with what I am going to post about this week, so I'll link to it here: on the main page, click the Testimony tab right under the title "John Wesley". Wesley practiced fasting, prayer, and many works of charity in an ascetic or self-depriving way, preached, traveled to America to evangelize the Indians, and established many of his spiritual ideas about Christian life all before he experienced what was probably his true conversion. It was not until 1738 that he experienced real faith in Christ alone to forgive his sins, and he confesses it was only then that he knew the peace of being assured he was cleansed and forgiven. Wesley's testimony is a good example of how long we can be led astray and deceived in thinking we are living the life of faith when we are only trying to follow rules and be "religious." This is why it is so important to listen to the Gospel and apply it.

For this reason, I am also careful to examine and test the ideas that Wesley promoted. I find many valuable things in what Wesley taught, but the way he developed his ideas and the rigid discipline he approached religion with before he really experienced the freedom of the Gospel mean that some of his thoughts and teachings are unreliable. It's always a good idea to test anything a person says against Scripture, no matter how respected and beloved he may be.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Why You Have to Fight Sin by Trusting in God

I said here and here that in order to overcome sin and temptation, you have to let go of trusting in your own willpower and turn instead to putting all your hope and trust in God to provide the strength to resist. Here are some examples of how the Bible emphasizes this truth:

"Thus says the LORD:
'Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the LORD.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.

'Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.'"
Jeremiah 17:5-8

Paul said of his ministry: "Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God... ." 2 Corinthians 3:5

Paul also confessed: "For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin." Romans 7:18-25

Paul recognized that he did not have the ability himself to obey what is right. He saw that his physical body was captive to the desire for sin, even when he wanted with his mind to obey God. And in verses 24-25 he emphasizes that he needs someone else to deliver him from this state, and then gives praise to God through Jesus Christ - the one who delivers him.

One of the most subtle deceptions that keep us trapped in a pattern of sin is the idea that our hearts and minds are basically good and capable of doing the right thing if we just try hard enough. Too many people cling to this idea as a self-image, not wanting to accept that they are not good by nature. Our hope of freedom is not found in being able to think of ourselves as good people. It is found in recognizing that God has shown inexhaustible and profound grace to us by loving, forgiving, restoring, and accepting us even though we were not good. Until we accept that we really are sinful and unable to obey God ourselves, we will not appreciate the relationship of salvation. It is, and must be, a total dependence on God alone for mercy and freedom. And that is the same way we have to continue to live, trusting God moment to moment to keep us from turning away from Him to seek after the deception of sin. I'll address this more deeply here and here.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday Salt: John Bunyan - When Sin Causes Us to Lose Heart

John Bunyan began writing The Pilgrim's Progress while in prison in 1675. A lay preacher with only a basic lower-class education, Bunyan wrote a book that became perhaps the first great English novel and one of the most popular Christian books ever. Charles Spurgeon claimed to have read it over 100 times, saying: "Next to the Bible, the book that I value most is John Bunyan’s, 'Pilgrim’s Progress,' and I imagine I may have read that through perhaps a hundred times. It is a book of which I never seem to tire, but then the secret of that is, that John Bunyan’s, 'Pilgrim’s Progress,' is the Bible in another shape. It is the same heavenly water taken out of this same well of the Gospel... ." (1901, Sermon #2724).

Bunyan's tale is an allegory of the journey of a Christian from the City of Destruction (the world of man) to the Celestial City. The struggles of faith are portrayed as obstacles and dangers, and the people's names reveal their nature. Early on in his journey, Christian and a companion called Pliable become stuck in the murky bog called the Slough of Despond:

"At that Pliable began to be offended, and angrily said to his fellow, Is this the happiness you have told me all this while of? If we have such ill speed at our first setting out, what may we expect betwixt this and our journey's end? May I get out again with my life, you shall possess the brave country alone for me."

Pliable does make his way out and turn back, and another character explains what the Slough is: "it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore it is called the Slough of Despond; for still, as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place." (text of the book online)

Pliable's reaction seems common. When we first begin to realize our guilt and how awful sin is, we can be overwhelmed by shame. It is tempting to reject the awareness of our sin rather than admit that our own sins are really so terrible and shameful. Or we may be discouraged by fear that God can never accept us after all these sins. But the reason we have so much trouble with conviction of sin is that we are not focusing our gaze wider to see the awesome extent of the grace that is flowing to us in Christ. If we think about how great and deep God's love is and how completely the mercy of God wipes away our sin through the cross, then the shame of our sin should not overwhelm us. We should be able to bear the unpleasant realizations about ourselves because our consolation and encouragement is that what Christ is giving us will completely eclipse all of that. The joy of knowing God is so great it will blot out the shame of sin.

As another character says of Pliable later on: "Alas, poor man, is the celestial glory of so small esteem with him, that he counteth it not worth running the hazards of a few difficulties to obtain it?"

Openness and Sincerity About Suffering Encourages Others

There are other reasons besides fear and insecurity that can lead us to conceal our struggles. Sometimes I am tempted to keep silent about my struggles for fear that I will discourage other Christians. The concern creeps over me that if I share the doubts that are plaguing me or confess how hard a time I'm having with suffering, it will make them doubt too. I think this hesitation misses three crucial benefits of opening up to each other: A) the encouragement and joy others get from helping bear your burdens; B) the encouragement that others get from finding that they are not alone in their struggles and that you wrestle with the same things; and C) combining forces and spurring one another on.

There may be some instances where you are around a person who just really is not ready to hear your doubts or the depth of your suffering, but those situations are usually obvious. When a person is already feeling overwhelmed, you should find someone else to open up to. But most people are not going to go through a crisis just because you tell them honestly that you're having a difficult time, and by concealing how you feel you are preventing the kind of mutual encouragement that helps the church flourish. It is part of our calling as Christians to love and encourage one another and to bear one another's burdens. When you share your struggles with others, you give them the chance to bless you and to experience the joy and satisfaction of helping someone else. If you always keep silent and stay closed up around others, you send a message that they don't have anything helpful to give you. That brings discouragement, but being allowed to help does the opposite.

I also believe that when you open up about your struggles and how you are trying to work through them, you are far more likely to encourage people than discourage them. It is liberating and reassuring to know that other people have the same doubts, fears, disappointments, and pain. The pastors that have blessed me most in dealing with suffering and doubt have been the ones who have freely confessed from the pulpit how they struggle with these things themselves. If this person has struggles like this even after many years of faithful ministry, it reassures me that I'm not a hopeless case just because I am struggling. That openness gives me much-needed hope that I can make valuable contributions even despite my weaknesses. If those pastors had kept silent, the church would be left with the impression that they are just above all those doubts and struggles and that those of us who do struggle are very weak and immature.

Finally, opening up to each other allows us to realize what struggles we have in common and compare notes on how to fight through them. "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another. " (Proverbs 27:17). We are supposed to spur one another on in life, and we can do this best if we each know where the other needs encouragement and accountability. Opening up to each other allows us to get doubts and suffering out in the open and attack them together. We are nearly always more confident when we have an ally on our side. When one person is discouraged, the other can be positive and reassure him. (See Eccl. 4:9-10). Christ uses the members of His church body to strengthen one another, so let's not be slow to participate!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Don't Just Put on a Happy Face

I said recently that your most painful or troubling times may be your best testimony to the power of the Gospel and the treasure of knowing Christ. When we suffer but remain hopeful, continuing to affirm that God is good and faithful, we show that our trust in God is real and not just the result of a fortunately happy life.

The next thought that followed in my mind, however, was that we must avoid the pressure to just "put on a happy face" and pretend everything is fine. There can be a strong temptation in Christian company to want to act positive and cheerful all the time so that people won't think you're a negative or immature Christian. In my experience, this is destructive. Genuine Christians ought to be able to be open with each other and to bear one another's burdens. (Galatians 6:2). Paul tells us to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15), clearly implying it's right for people to know you're mourning.

We have to avoid creating an environment where people feel uncomfortable admitting they are struggling or doubting because they think they'll be judged. No church and no group of Christians should be like that. People need to be free to talk about how they really feel, or else they can't be helped and encouraged by their fellow believers. We are to show mercy to those who doubt (Jude 22), and we are supposed to comfort one another (2 Cor. 13:11; 2 Cor. 1:3-7) just as God comforts us. That can't happen if people don't feel embraced and supported when they admit their struggles. It is a mark of immaturity for a Christian to look down on any other person for struggling or doubting. Instead, we should be moved with compassion and seek to encourage each other.

The first step in creating the kind of Christian community described above is for you to commit to being supportive of people when they struggle. The second step is to be willing to defy the temptation to keep your own struggles hidden. Our fears that people will lose respect for us if we confess to doubts or discouragement are often imagined. Sometimes the whole group is keeping silent with the same imagined fear. When you open up to others, it sends the message that it's okay to talk about this. That makes it easy for them to do the same.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Your Worst Times May Be Your Best Testimony to the Gospel

The best chance you have to show the Gospel to people may be when you least feel like you have anything to give. When you are in the midst of distress and suffering, there will usually be people who are aware of your situation who don't believe in Christ. It is one thing for them to hear you talk about the hope of the Gospel and the freedom of trusting in Christ when things seem to be going well for you. Any person might be content with his or her beliefs and way of life when all is well. But when your world seems to be falling apart and you are clearly under stress, the way you react shows much more truth about what you believe. If you praise God and affirm that he is faithful and wonderful even in the midst of your own suffering, you show that the Gospel really is a consolation to you and that knowing God really does bring comfort.

People will often expect you to be miserable when circumstances are difficult or painful. Most people won't even criticize or judge you for it - they know they would react the same way. It's usually accepted that we will be unhappy and discouraged when life is hard. But at the same time, if you do react that way, then people see you're no different from them and your comforts are no different. But when you react to suffering with hope and encouragement instead, and when you maintain your trust in God and your enjoyment of Him, people take notice. This is something they have a hard time explaining away. You can testify to a person for years that you believe in Christ and that He is the Way to life, but when that person sees that you really do take your own comfort from trusting in this - and that the hope you have in the Gospel is so strong that it brings you encouragement and peace even in painful suffering - you have just proven your sincerity in a way that can't easily be questioned or doubted.

On one occasion where Paul and Silas were thrown into prison, Acts 16:25 says: "About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them... ." No doubt! You would be paying attention too if you saw men in a first-century prison singing while sitting in the stocks. Paul and Silas were soon released from prison, but the point is that they were singing before they received relief. Praising God and seeking Him in the midst of suffering shows that you trust Him to deliver you from it. And that captures people's attention. As David said in Psalm 40 about God having delivered him from trouble: "Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord." (Psalm 40:3).

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sunday Salt: Spurgeon on How the Cross Takes Away Fear

I normally intend to draw from as diverse a group of people as possible for Sunday Salt meditations, but this quote from the "Prince of Preachers" was so encouraging that I wanted to share it even though we visited with Spurgeon only a couple of weeks ago.

"The most earnest Christian man must sometimes have his doubts as to whether all is right with him. The more sincere a man is, the more does he tremble lest he should deceive himself. You may have your personal anxieties; certainly I have mine. But when I turn my eyes to Jesus upon the cross and view the thorn crown and the sacred head and the eyes that were red with weeping and the hands nailed fast to the wood and the feet dripping with blood, and when I remember that this shameful death was endured for love of me, I am so quiet and so happy in my spirit that I cannot tell how peacefully my life-floods flow. God must forgive my grievous fault, for my Redeemer has so grievously answered for it. When I see Jesus die, I perceive that henceforth divine justice is on the sinner's side. How can the Lord God punish the same offense twice--first the Substitute and then the men for whom that Substitute has bled? Christ has bled as substitute for every man who believes in Him--therefore is every believer safe."
--"The Marvelous Magnet" from The Power of the Cross of Christ, ed. Lance Wubbels (Christian Living Classics, published by Emerald House; 1995), p. 20.

"But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified." Hebrews 10:12-14

"He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed." 1 Peter 2:24

"And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross." Colossians 2:13-14

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sunday Salt: Augustine's Gratitude for How God Kept Him From Sin

Augustine of Hippo was one of the greatest writers of the Early Church. Living from the fourth century to the first third of the fifth century, he was schooled in the classical philosophy and rhetoric of the Roman centers of learning, but also lived to see the fall of Rome. He didn't embrace Christ until age 32, first pursuing various philosophies and even having a mistress through whom he fathered a child. After converting, he ended up producing some of the most important works ever written in the Church. In the Confessions (free online editions and links), Augustine describes the process of his early life and his slow transition to Christianity, and examines the struggle with sin and the ways the human mind and body are tested and tempted.

The following passage left a deep impression on me when I first read it, and taught me that we have much more to be grateful for from God than just forgiveness for the sins we did commit:
"What shall I render unto the Lord for the fact that while my memory recalls these things my soul no longer fears them? I will love thee, O Lord, and thank thee, and confess to thy name, because thou hast put away from me such wicked and evil deeds. To thy grace I attribute it and to thy mercy, that thou hast melted away my sin as if it were ice. To thy grace also I attribute whatsoever of evil I did not commit--for what might I not have done, loving sin as I did, just for the sake of sinning? Yea, all the sins that I confess now to have been forgiven me, both those which I committed willfully and those which, by thy providence, I did not commit. What man is there who, when reflecting upon his own infirmity, dares to ascribe his chastity and innocence to his own powers, so that he should love thee less--as if he were in less need of thy mercy in which thou forgivest the transgressions of those that return to thee? As for that man who, when called by thee, obeyed thy voice and shunned those things which he here reads of me as I recall and confess them of myself, let him not despise me--for I, who was sick, have been healed by the same Physician by whose aid it was that he did not fall sick, or rather was less sick than I. And for this let him love thee just as much--indeed, all the more--since he sees me restored from such a great weakness of sin by the selfsame Saviour by whom he sees himself preserved from such a weakness."
Confessions [free online text], translated by Albert C. Outler (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), Book II, Ch. VII, 15.

The realization that God has not only forgiven us for every selfish and hurtful thing we have done, but also that it is God's mercy that kept us from doing even more terrible things than we did, taught me to appreciate more deeply how closely God protects us and how much we depend on Him to overcome sin. Left on our own, we would not resist sin. A good example of God's mercy in restraining sin can be found in Genesis 20:3-7, where God tells Abimelech that He was the one who kept Abimelech from sinning and incurring guilt when Abimelech unwittingly took Abraham's wife for a bride.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Five Crucial Aspects of a Healthy Marriage

In preparation for a friend's bridal shower, my wife asked me the other day what my top three tips for a good marriage were. This is what our discussion produced, and after ten years of marriage I feel strongly that these have been some of the most important factors in the strength or our marriage. Sadly, you won't hear most of these in the average pre-marital counseling session. Let's change that by spreading good advice far and wide.

As a preface, it will be clear that these practices are all based on following Christ and believing in the Living God. That's because I know I couldn't have the marriage I have today without focusing on God and pursuing my relationship with Him. Much of the pain, struggling, and broken dreams we experience in life comes from trying to do things our way, on our own, without giving ourselves up to God and following His wisdom. (A good example of Matthew 7:24-27 in action.)

1. Make sure you both are in some sort of small group or Bible study that meets regularly, in which you each have people you can confide in and pray with. There should be at least one person of the same sex in your life and one in your spouse's life who you can each tell anything and everything to and who you don't hold anything back from. You each need someone you can confess your struggles and your sins to who will keep you accountable and who will pray for you.

2. Pray together with your spouse and read the Bible together. Talk about what you are reading together. If you just pray and read and grow in your knowledge of God separately, you are not building your marriage on a common relationship with God and a mutual dependence on God. It is amazing how many problems in marriage are reduced or solved by talking to God together and confessing your weaknesses and struggles together. You learn to trust Him together and to encourage each other in faith, and you learn to deal with disagreements and problems by talking about Scripture and by praying together instead of just hashing it out.

3. Resolve to forgive each other for anything and everything, just as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32). Be committed to loving each other no matter what, the same way God is committed to loving you. Marriage is not designed to make you happy or fulfill all your expectations. Marriage is designed to help you know Christ more and experience God more deeply, because knowing Him is where you will find happiness and fulfillment. Marriage will reveal to you your own pride, weaknesses, sins, and destructive attitudes more deeply than just about anything else. Resolve to accept that this is God's gift to you to help you overcome your own faults and the things that keep you from experiencing satisfaction in Him. Love each other as you are and encourage each other in growing and changing. When you do, you will experience more joy and satisfaction in your marriage and appreciate how it brings you closer to God.

4. Closely related to #3, never, ever doubt that people can change and that all things are possible with God. No matter how difficult your disagreements may be or how you may disappoint each other, don't give up. Remember what Paul said about the power of God: He raises the dead. We can depend on Him to rescue the living from any despair. God expressly says that He has the power to change a person's heart. Even if it seems like you reach a point where you can't work together on something or one of you won't budge, put your faith and hope in God and trust that He can change feelings, expectations, or attitudes for either of you. I have experienced it firsthand in a number of "hopeless" situations, and I have seen it in other marriages too. "[W]ith God all things are possible." This is not a promise that you'll get everything you want; it's bigger than that. Sometimes the work of God is to show you that what you want or think you need really isn't as important as you thought it was, and that your happiness will come without it.

5. Be open and honest with each other about what you hope for and what hurts you in your marriage. A friend of ours recently said that a lot of pain in marriage comes from expectations that are not communicated to each other, and which therefore go unfulfilled. Don't keep your feelings and your needs private. Talk to each other about how you feel and trust each other with your dreams and hopes. Don't hold back because you don't think anything will change. Remember #4.

What are your thoughts? Please share your advice too in the comments.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Salt: Spurgeon - Are You Friendly With Sin?

This Sunday's meditation is from Charles Spurgeon, one of the most gifted preachers of all time. It is often uncomfortable to be confronted with our own sinful choices, but it is necessary to recognize how hateful sin is:

"Do you roll sin under your tongue as a sweet morsel and then come to God's house on Sunday morning and think to worship Him? [Said with disbelief:] Worship Him! Worship Him, with sin indulged in your life! If I had a dear brother who had been murdered, what would you think of me if I valued the knife that had been crimsoned with his blood? ...Sin murdered Christ; will you be a friend to it? Sin pierced the heart of the Incarnate God; can you love it? Oh, that there was an abyss as deep as Christ's misery, that I might at once hurl this dagger of sin into its depths, whence it might never be brought to light again! Begone, O sin! You are banished from the heart where Jesus reigns!" -quoted in the introduction to The Power of the Cross of Christ, ed. Lance Wubbels (Christian Living Classics, published by Emerald House; 1995).

For those who are confronting their own sin with shame or regret, let the Apostle John remind you of this comfort: "I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:1b-2). You can turn your back on sin and turn your life over to the One who already bore the punishment of sin.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Why Does Life Often Seem to Get Harder?

John Piper began his eight-month leave of absence on May 1st. He and the other pastors and elders have been encouraging us to pray faithfully for the church during this time. One of the things that has been on my heart to pray for has been deep and lasting application. We have been blessed with extraordinary teaching and preaching over the years. But listening is one thing, and applying the teaching is another, as James points out: "But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like." (James 1:22-24.) Or in other words, he forgets the teaching and does nothing with it.

It seems that it is all too easy to just enjoy the experience of hearing great teaching and to end up taking a lot of the instruction for granted. So I have been praying that this season for our church would be one of application, where we take what we've heard and learned and experienced and concentrate on practicing it. At the same time, I have found that the past month has been one of the hardest I've ever experienced, and I am seeing a lot of suffering and struggling around me in my church. As I was wrestling with this today, the thought was laid on me that this may be exactly what the answer to my prayer looks like. If we pray for application, we should expect circumstances to come up that will challenge us and require us to apply what we've learned. God doesn't strengthen us for no purpose. He strengthens us to bear one another's burdens. Application has a goal, and the goal is to be more Christlike - and thus more generous in serving others.

If we want to grow, then we need to be willing to take on bigger responsibilities with the growth God gives us. This quote captures it beautifully: "Pray not for a lighter load but for stronger shoulders." (from Margie Miguel). When the trials seem greater, we should take it as evidence that God is making us stronger, and we should rejoice that He is entrusting us with more grace and more faith that will enable us to more deeply love and strengthen those around us.

I am taking comfort that this striving is not in vain, but is a labor that will produce greater blessing in the lives of those around us. "But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing." (James 1:25.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How to Fight Sin by Faith

I said here that the way to defeat sin is to fight by faith - you must admit you can't overcome sin on your own and put your trust in God instead to do it. Here's how it works in practice: when you are tempted by any sin, don't think to yourself "I'm strong enough to beat this. I can hold out. I won't give in." That thinking is focused entirely on trusting yourself to be faithful and to be good. The problem with that is that we aren't good. No matter how much we try to do what is right, sooner or later we stray. Scripture makes it clear what our situation is: "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus[.]" (Romans 3:23-24). We can't hope in our own ability to avoid sin; we have to accept instead that if we stand, we stand by the grace of God that comes through Christ.

This is the strength God wants us to draw on. "Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might." says Paul in Ephesians 6:10. Instead of relying on our own strength or willpower, we need to rely on God's strength. So when temptation comes, turn to God in prayer and confess that you know you cannot do this on your own. Admit you need Him and are dependent on His power, and ask Him to strengthen you and to give you the grace to resist temptation. As Jesus said to His disciples: "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." (Matthew 26:41). He did not say, "Strengthen your resolve and resist temptation." He told them to pray that they would not give in, asking God to keep them from sin.

The next step is crucial: you have to trust God that He will deliver you and grant you grace to resist. "In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one[.]" (Ephesians 6:16). It is faith in God that deflects and defeats the temptations hurled at us. One of the biggest reasons I found that sin was defeating me was because I had failed so many times before that I was just convinced it was hopeless to hold out forever. I was convinced that sooner or later I would fail anyway. But God tells us not to trust in our own limited strength, and to trust in His infinite, almighty power instead. The change here is huge. When you realize you're relying on God's power, you know that victory is possible! Jesus spent His whole life without ever sinning. If that's the power of God at work, then you can resist and overcome too. The confirmation of this is that God has promised us He will make us able to escape sin: "God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Fighting by faith means you take things one step at a time, trusting God to sustain you and give you strength to resist each temptation. You keep turning away from the temptation because you know that God is giving you the strength to succeed every time. And the reason this is different than trying to resist in your own strength is that you have asked God to deliver you and you have placed your faith in Him to do it. God responds to that trust and puts His power to work in your life to overcome sin. His power is inexhaustible and able to defeat anything.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sunday Salt: G.K. Chesterton on the Tension of Virtues

This week's Sunday Salt seemed to be an appropriate follow-up to last week (C.S. Lewis on how each emotion is right at some time and wrong at another). Today's passage is from G.K. Chesterton, from his amazing and brilliant book Orthodoxy. It is the story of how Chesterton discovered through his own ponderings about life, and his own experiments in searching for truth, beauty, and reason, the great story of Christianity and how it made sense of everything in life. Chesterton was one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century, and this is one of his greatest works. I'll share more about it in the future. What follows is an outline in quotations of how Chesterton realized that the tension of two powerful and often conflicting emotions or virtues, and the way Christianity seeks to keep them both powerful and yet both in proper balance, explains some fascinating things about Christian doctrine - and why doctrine is so desperately important.

"Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity declared it was in a conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite. Of course they were not really inconsistent; but they were such that it was hard to hold simultaneously. ...

And now I began to find that this duplex passion was the Christian key to ethics everywhere. Everywhere the creed made a moderation out of the still crash of two impetuous emotions. Take, for instance, the matter of modesty, of the balance between mere pride and mere prostration. The average pagan, like the average agnostic, would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse, that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them. In short, he would walk with his head in the air; but not necessarily with his nose in the air. This is a manly and rational position, but it is open to the objection... [that being] a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full colour. This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets; you cannot go glad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand, this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at the feet of the grass. It does not make him look up and see marvels; for Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland. Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble. Christianity sought by this same strange expedient to save both of them." Orthodoxy, pp. 99-100 (Ignatius Press edition; 1995).

"And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild." p. 102

"This was the big fact about Christian ethics; the discovery of the new balance. Paganism had been like a pillar of marble, upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years. ... So in Christendom apparent accidents balanced. Becket wore a hair shirt under his gold and crimson, and there is much to be said for the combination; for Becket got the benefit of the hair shirt while the people in the street got the benefit of the crimson and gold. ...

Last and most important, it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair's breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious. ...if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. ... Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless." pp. 105-07

Saturday, May 8, 2010

What I Mean By "Beating Sin"

I said here that I would explain in these posts how I went about beating sin, and in the last post I said I have been experiencing freedom from certain sins for years. I want to be absolutely clear about what I mean by that:
  • I do not mean that I am sin-free, so don't write this off as me saying something ridiculous. I sin in lots of ways, just like everybody else. There are only two kinds of people in this world - sinners who don't believe in Christ and sinners who do. No human except for Jesus has ever reached a point where he doesn't sin. But you can find freedom from habits of sin - sins you keep committing over and over and over (often called "besetting sins").
  • I do not mean that I don't have to fight hard against temptation. I often do. Temptation doesn't go away. However, I have found that temptations are often weaker.
  • I do not mean that I have "conquered" a particular sin and don't need to worry about it anymore. That would be a very dangerous idea. Sin is always a deadly enemy that you have to watch for vigilantly. You can't make peace with it. "Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned?" (Proverbs 6:27).
Here's what I mean: By applying what I talked about in the last post, I experienced a decisive change in my life where I was able to regularly resist temptations that I used to give in to. I also found that the temptations became less frequent, the fight was often much easier, and I have been given the grace to have a long season of victory over some particular sins. That doesn't mean I might not stumble again someday. "Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall." (1 Cor. 10:12). But the difference is night and day. That's what I call freedom - the freedom to establish new patterns of behavior and the freedom of successfully resisting over and over the temptations that you used to regularly give in to.

Fighting Sin Requires Admitting You Can't Win

When I was finally at the point with sin that I desperately wanted to change, I was trying everything I could to resist temptation and avoid sin. I was proud of myself for some really long periods (months) of staying away from certain sins. But I kept giving in to sin again and again. It seemed that no matter what my motivation was, no matter how much I hated sin or was ashamed of it, no matter what tactics I tried, I just kept returning to it. Then I read a book in which the author boldly stated in the first chapter something that stunned me. He said this fight is impossible and we can't win it. He proceeded to demonstrate from the Bible two things: 1) that we are corrupted enough by an appetite for sin that we aren't able to resist it on our own; and 2) that God's standard is complete holiness, something no human being can obtain by force of will or discipline.

At first, I was wondering where he was going with that. Then he explained that as long as we are trying to "work harder" at beating sin (this goes for any sin), we are just trying to do in our own strength something that is impossible on our own. The only way to victory is to recognize and admit to God that we can't do this. We will fail. I thought this sounded like giving up, but the author made me see that God's specific plan for overcoming sin is that we trust Him to supply the power to do it. When we admit to Him we can't do it and that we have to depend entirely on Him, we are being honest about who we are and who God is. That's what God wants us to see. He wants us to recognize that He is God, and it is His power that is going to change our lives. When we ask Him to free us and we put our trust entirely in Him to overcome sin, He accomplishes far more than we ever can.

I know this is right, because I've examined these ideas against Scripture, and that's exactly what the Bible teaches. But I also know it's right because I changed my tactics and started applying this truth in practice, putting all my trust and hope in God to keep me from sin, and now instead of those occasional months of freedom I've been free for years. God's plan works. Here's how it looks in practice.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Roadblock to Spiritual Health

I had finally reached a point in my life where I had caused enough pain to myself and others through sin that I was sick of giving in to it. If you're not there yet, I recommend that you spend serious time in prayer asking God to show you how your sins are affecting others and to show you just how bad they are. Make no mistake: your sins are making you and other people unhappy and are frustrating your hopes and dreams. It's just a question of seeing how. As long as you take sin lightly, you won't care much about changing.

Reading the Bible will help you see sin clearly. Read Proverbs and you'll get a clear sense of the real consequences of sin and how self-destructive it is. James and Romans are also good books to read. Read Matthew 5. Scripture will show you how poisonous sin is and how widespread its destruction can be. Scripture is clear that the end of sin is death (Romans 6:20-23; James 1:14-15), but that seems to sink in for us more when we see illustrations of what sin does to us.

Perhaps the most convicting thought for me is that the desires for sin are directly opposed to spiritual life. "For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do." (Galatians 5:17). In other words, you will not grow in the Christian life unless you reckon with your sin. It is standing in the way of your spiritual fulfillment, and every time you make progress sin is sneaking in and working against you. Recognize that sin is your enemy.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Stage 2: Fighting Sin by Faith

I have said a lot about the importance of reading your Bible because I want to emphasize that equipping your mind with God's promises and instructions is a crucial tool you need to find joy and satisfaction. I am going to move now to talking about how I dealt with the sins and attitudes that were keeping me from joy. I listed this second in the outline I gave of the most significant things that were part of my transformation from being disappointed and unfulfilled to becoming free, joyful, and satisfied in my daily relationship with Christ. Simply put, I had reached a point in my life where I knew I wasn't measuring up to what I wanted to be and what my family needed me to be, and I was also giving in to sin over and over again in ways that left me feeling totally defeated.

We all know that sin is bad. We've heard the message over and over that sin is wrong and that it will lead to punishment in hell. We need to get that straight in our heads, because if we are going to find joy in God, we have to care about obeying God. You can't love the Lord and be close to Him and kick sand in His face at the same time. But I think a large part of the reason we don't obey God in this area is that we don't trust Him enough when He promises that we will be fulfilled by following His instruction. Sin comes along and tempts us with some immediate pleasure, and we give in because we don't think we'll be as fulfilled by resisting. So one thing I needed to realize before I hated sin enough to want to change is that sin makes you miserable. Sin may give some pleasure, but it always takes more in exchange.

Every sin makes you sacrifice something you need for a healthy, complete, fulfilled life in order to pursue it. Adultery comes at the expense of your marriage, your family, your friendships, and the peace of your home. Gluttony comes at the expense of health. Pride comes at the expense of hurting and pushing down others. Greed comes at the expense of peace of mind and contentment (you can never be satisfied when your happiness is wrapped up in getting - there's always more you don't have). Sin isn't just wrong - it's self-defeating. It is a traitor and a liar. Sin never makes a straight bargain, but always cheats you in the end.

In my life, I finally reached a point where I had screwed up enough to realize I was always going to be miserable unless I beat the sins I was giving in to. In the next posts I will lay out how I went about it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

New Weekly Series: Sunday Salt

Today I am beginning a weekly series I am calling "Sunday Salt". My goal is to draw from the great history of Christian wisdom and to share something valuable each Sunday (Lord willing) from teachers, leaders, missionaries, and writers who have already entered their reward. As C.S. Lewis has said, every generation has its own blind spots. The only way to guard against the particular misleading ideas you were brought up with in your culture and generation is to read outside of both - "in an abundance of counselors there is safety." (Proverbs 11:14). So my prayer is that this weekly devotion will be a way of holding up a mirror to our thinking to reveal areas that are skewed, as well as providing some encouragement and wisdom.

Appropriately enough, I am starting with Lewis himself:

"It is a mistake to think that some of our impulses—say mother love or patriotism—are good, and others, like sex or the fighting instinct, are bad. All we mean is that the occasions on which the fighting instinct or the sexual desire need to be restrained are rather more frequent than those for restraining mother love or patriotism. But there are situations in which it is the duty of a married man to encourage his sexual impulse and of a soldier to encourage the fighting instinct. There are also occasions on which a mother's love for her own children or a man's love for his own country have to be suppressed or they will lead to unfairness towards other people's children or countries. Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses. Think once again of a piano. It has not got two kinds of notes on it, the 'right' notes and the 'wrong' ones. Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another. The Moral Law is not any one instinct or any set of instincts: it is something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the instincts.

By the way, this point is of great practical consequence. The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials 'for the sake of humanity', and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man."

Mere Christianity, pp. 23-24 (Touchstone edition; 1996).

Monday, March 29, 2010

Husbands, Love Your Wives

I just posted here on Pastor John Piper's announcement that he is taking an eight-month leave of absence from all public ministry to focus on his wife and family. My wife and I had been going over a study Pastor Piper wrote some years ago on Spiritual Leadership, and one of the essential qualities of leadership he identified was loving your wife. This seems a very appropriate time to share what he wrote back then:

"Here I am speaking directly to men who are husbands and leaders. Paul said in Ephesians 5:25, "Husbands, love your wives!" Love her! Love her! What does it profit a man if he gains a great following and loses his wife? What have we led people to if they see that it leads us to divorce? What we need today are leaders who are great lovers. Husbands who write poems for their wives and sign songs to their wives and buy flowers for their wives for no reason at all except that they love them. We need leaders who know that they should take a day alone with their wives every now and then; leaders who do not fall into the habit of deriding and puffing their wives down, especially with careless little asides in public; leaders who speak well of their wives in public and compliment them spontaneously when they are alone; leaders who touch her tenderly at other times besides when they are in bed. ... Look her in the eye when you talk to her. Put down the paper and turn off the television. Open the door for her. Help her with the dishes. Throw her a party. LOVE HER! LOVE HER! If you don't, all your success as a leader will very likely explode in failure at home."

Thank God that He has moved Pastor Piper to focus on this, even years later, and to take the radical and humble step of telling his fellow brothers and sisters that he needs to take a break to tend to his family.

John Piper Steps Back From Public Ministry

Pastor John Piper announced to our church on Saturday and Sunday that he has asked for an eight month leave of absence from our elder board. He explained the reason for this extended leave in this way: "I see several species of pride in my soul that, while they may not rise to the level of disqualifying me for ministry, grieve me, and have taken a toll on my relationship with Noël and others who are dear to me. ...the precious garden of my home needs tending. I want to say to Noël that she is precious to me in a way that, at this point in our 41-year pilgrimage, can be said best by stepping back for a season from virtually all public commitments."

Adrian Warnock hit on just about everything important I wanted to say in his post on this. I will add that I am grateful again for the remarkable transparency Pastor Piper has shown to his congregation. He has been very open about his own weaknesses and what he needs to work on and wrestle with. One blessing in this is that it doesn't leave his church with a lot of unanswered questions about why he's doing this and what it may mean for us. I think the more important blessing, though, is that it gives us the opportunity to learn from his struggles and to take a good look at ourselves to see if we're ignoring pride and character flaws. When someone like Pastor Piper takes a dramatic step like this, it should cause us to ask ourselves if we're taking our sins seriously enough and doing enough to identify them and put them to death.

Will we miss our pastor during these eight months? Yes. A lot. But it is a great gift to have a leader who sets an example like this. There are probably many people in the congregation who need to take a step back in their own lives and examine how they are loving their families. If the author of "Don't Waste Your Life" can say 'my family is more important right now than my public ministry' then the rest of us can feel reassured that it's okay to take the time to care for our families too.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Encouragement of the Old Testament - Genesis

Reading through Genesis has shown me a lot about God's power and faithfulness, which has greatly strengthened my faith that God can and will help us in our struggles. Seeing how God fulfills His promises despite impossible circumstances is a strong reminder that no challenge in front of us is too difficult for God.

God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a nation whose people would be like the sand on the seashore. God made this promise to a man who was well-advanced in age, and whose wife Sarah had never been able to have children. (Genesis 17:17; 18:11-13; 16:1.) In other words, God chose two people who no one would expect to have children to be the parents of an entire nation, His chosen people. (Gen. 21:5-7.) Most people know that God nevertheless gave them a child: Isaac.

What some of us may not have noticed is that Isaac, the heir of Abraham and the next in line to father the nation, also took a wife who couldn't have children! (Gen. 25:21.) And their son Jacob, who became the next heir of the Promise, also had two wives who both could not conceive. (Gen. 29:31.) God began His promise to create a great nation with three generations who could not naturally conceive any offspring. Yet he gave each of them children. Jacob's name was later changed to Israel, and he fathered the twelve tribes of Israel.

This has been a reminder to me of what the Lord said to Abraham: "Is anything too difficult for the Lord?" (Gen. 18:14.) God often chooses difficult or impossible circumstances in order to teach us to depend on Him and in order to make it clear that it is God's power that brings success, not ours. Reading these Scriptures reminds me not to be discouraged by what seems overwhelming, but instead to trust in God's faithfulness and power.