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.