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).