Archive for the ‘sin’ Tag

TEMPTATION IS NOT SIN

Jesus was tempted. Jesus did not sin. We know it, sure, but do we always see the distinction in our own lives? Maybe it’s just me, but I have always had trouble separating the temptation from the sin. It matters because, if you already feel guilty and defeated as a result of having been tempted, then you are far less likely to stand resilient in the face of the sin itself. In fact, I have come to think there is more credit in having resisted temptation than in never having been tempted at all…

 

I give an example (and no I’m not going to wheel out the oft-used analogy of the second look at a girl being the sinful one – much as it’s a good’un): Person 1 hates the taste of alcohol, can think of nothing worse than drinking it in significant amounts, perhaps hangs out with other tee-totallers, and, would you believe it, has not recently succumbed to drunkenness! Person 2, on the other hand, loves a beer, is surrounded by drinkers, but has managed to limit him/herself to a couple of pints – an amount at which he/she knows by experience is safe in terms of conduct implications. In this case, I think we’d agree, Person 2 has showed rather more resolve; rather more evidence of godly decision-making. Person 1 hasn’t done anything wrong, of course, but he/she will have other battles to fight – this one was a breeze! Yet I suspect our gut reaction may be to see Person 1 as the ‘better Christian’ – as the godly stand-out more worthy of praise.

 

Anyway, enough intro – time to apply this to myself. I very nearly fell right into this trap. A month ago, I began my much-blogged spiritual retox and, you know what, I was bang up for it! I was ready for it, enthusiastic, motivated… there was nothing I wanted to do more at that point than to fix my eyes on God. I had little else on my mind… It was easy, to be frank. And, on some level, I’m sure I congratulated myself for the standards I set. Fast forward to last week, and some of the steam had run out of my drive for godly endeavours. My brain was not fixing upon the things I wanted it to fix, I was not half as keen on getting up to read the Bible, there seemed better ways to spend my time than reading about or discussing Christ. It has been a struggle, even a chore upon occasion. Following the loss of routine with Monday and Tuesday’s snow days, I had to drag myself kicking and screaming back into where I should be for the rest of the week in mind, motive and deed. It’s been a right old struggle, to be fair. And I felt as if I had failed. I felt as if I was a bad person!

 

On occasion I may have been right. I am a sinner, and I have been a sinner this week, just as every other week. BUT my issue was with the temptation as much as with the sin. I was far more comfortable, like the non-drinker above, doing the right thing when that was the easy thing to do, than when it went against my every sinful instinct. That’s why I write to remind myself this Christian life is not MEANT to be easy! If it was, why would James write ‘blessed is the man who resists temptation’? (James 1:12). Jesus didn’t brush off temptation with a nonchalant shrug – I’m sure it pained him as it pains us. There are many biblical ‘40’s to choose from in comparing his 40-day stint in the desert. The one that springs to mind however is the 40 days spent by Israel in the Valley of Elah, facing Goliath, the fearsome enemy of God. Sin is meant to be imposing, intimidating and is meant to take courage to face down. There is an inevitable tension in the Christian life. Even Paul cried out ‘What a wretched man I am!’ as he struggled to walk the Christian walk. If I give up defeated every time the wrong thing feels like the appealing thing to do, I’ll never get anywhere beyond short-lived bursts of enthusiasm.

 

The Christian life is meant to be toil, a race demanding stamina, and is characterised by the joy that tells us it’s worthwhile because Jesus died for our sins – not joy because it’s easy. I will be tempted this week, in any number of directions, but I will, God willing, whilst picking up a couple of sprained ankles along the way, keep on running this race of ours…

THE LOW POINT

Posted 5/1/09

(I don’t come across great here – but it’s a cop-out that most confessionals get written in hindsight once the author feels OK again…)

Written Christmas Eve 2008.

OK – it’s time to say it out loud… I’m struggling with it all at the moment. There are times when you have to ask… Is my spiritual slump down to circumstances, or are my circumstances down to my spiritual slump?? That’s the question I bring to the table today – should we treat our occasional misfortune as divine discipline?

So what’s been going on? Well circumstantially – the month has seen us have to spend thousands we don’t have on kitchen repairs as we continue to battle the damp (having had to unpleasantly fire the man we initially hired to sort it), has seen my car stereo stolen from the car, has seen colds, injury (I’m currently on crutches) and a generally miserable mood on my part, leading to a greater incidence of marital tension. Now I’m not here looking for sympathy – Nina’s insistence that I should count blessings more is very true. Looking at the above for example – we are indeed able to get the necessary kitchen work done (albeit on credit!), the car stereo will be replaced by one better by virtue of a Christmas gift from the wife, my foot is not broken when it could have been etc etc. Perhaps above all, the church community has really shown its value – people have selflessly agreed to tend our cat over the holiday period, to drive me to casualty as soon as I asked and are generally brilliant whenever called upon to be so…

More to the point has been the worrying slump in my Christian life. This is literally the first time in a couple of years that I have totally failed to carry out quiet times in a week; that I have felt taken over by a feeling of ‘enough already! Whatever…’ in terms of the standards I seek to maintain. Now it’s not terminal – my faith is secure, as is my salvation, and I’m dead keen to jump back on the boat after my little period of wallowing. However, neither is it out of the blue – the year has been marked by taking things for granted; a lack of engagement with ‘church life’ and a lack of passion for the issues that matter. Sermons aren’t being listened to, paperbacks aren’t being read and, worst of all, blogs aren’t being written! Thus, as I have said, I am interested by whether a recent run of bad luck can be viewed as a case of ‘get your act together’ from on high. I don’t for a second think this is always the case, but Hebrews 12 makes very clear that we do sometimes receive a rap over the knuckles for our own good:

5And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons:
   “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
      and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
 6because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
      and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”[a]

7Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.

When I read that I am mightily and heartily encouraged. It is worth the loss of any number of car stereos or ankle ligaments (don’t worry, mine are still there!) if to benefit my relationship with the God of all creation. Perhaps things do just happen to us in this life, everything evens out in the end and we shouldn’t read too much into it. However if we truly believe God to be lord and sustainer of this world then clearly he did allow, or even predestine, a relatively tough old month on my part and I am accountable as to how I respond. This is not to say that those typhoid-riddled Christians of Zimbabwe are particularly sinful. Neither that they necessarily feel particularly removed from God’s blessing anyhow; accounts from any number of impoverished or persecuted churches – indeed even my grandfather’s wartime reminiscences – are full of reminders that often in the midst of hardship God’s children are most aware of His kindness and mercy. Anyway, back to the point…

So, back in the saddle. I must repent, and with it I must change. And my New Year’s Resolution is to work a little harder at all this, even whilst understanding that my salvation is by grace and by no effort on my own part. I want to put in a better shift in order that others may know my God is one worth putting in the hours for, and because He deserves that and infinitely more from me in 2009! And if this car stereo survives a little longer, well all the better…

PS Written 5th January:

In a spirit of honesty I have to say that having written this, things didn’t get better – they got worse. The mistake of me calling my repentance a ‘New Year’s Resolution’ was one my sinful nature latched onto, implicitly granting me permission to completely let things go to seed for the remainder of December… I can’t justify my ugly thoughts, my sudden strange aversion to picking up the Bible, or the inappropriately full-blooded seasonal celebrations I have engaged in. However, it is reassuring that I feel utterly worn down, fed up and damaged by it. The greatest lie of all is that the unsaved have a life to envy. The truth is I desperately miss the thrill of letting my light shine. I just wish I wasn’t such an idiot. Good thing I have such a saviour in Christ…

GUILT IN SIN

Posted 12/3/07

I’ve received quite a lot of reaction to this blog over the past month. Most of it, by far, is in response to those entries I dismissively refer to as ‘confessional angst’. It is in my acknowledgement of sin and the struggle to avoid it that I most seem to strike a familiar chord. Well on this occasion, rather than indulge my readers (they exist!), I am going to try and examine why such a preference may exist; it would seem the feeling of failure in our Christian lives is endemic and worst when not shared.

The hypothesis is this – we are told that the Christian experience should be characterized by joy. We are enlightened, forgiven, saved for all time and designed for worship so why not? David writes that God ‘put gladness in my heart’ (Psalms 4:7) whilst the Thessalonians, even in affliction, received the Word with ‘joy of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Thess 1:6). Most famously, Isaiah 55:12 states that ‘You shall go forth in joy’. However, I would observe that, for many, their walk with God is more like Lamentations than Psalms. So many people summarise their spiritual situation along the lines of ‘I am so far from where I should be with God. I’m not making the progress I should be – I’m not behaving in the right way’. This is not mere lip-service. I am only too aware that the daily burden of guilt can be a sickening daily reality – first thought in the morning and last at night. What’s more, this state of affairs is logical. Those who aren’t saved have little reason to rue their everyday sins, nor to even recognize them. Christians, on the other hand, are only too aware of their sin, yet seem powerless to prevent it. Put in the terms of a human relationship, guilt would seem unavoidably constant were we to repeatedly go against the wishes of our loved ones whilst they looked on, causing them heartbreak on each occasion. We then, walk around shame-faced by our pathetic failures to honour God at work and in our relationships. If we know he’s the most important thing, then why don’t we honour Him all the time?

I am very susceptible to this constant self-analysis. Ups and downs are the way I work – and I have always been in thrall to the idea that ‘I’ve done well this week’ or otherwise (usually otherwise). However, this can easily equate to a points system – a faith measured by deeds as we drum up negative scores for an excess of alcohol or a lustful fantasy pursued, whilst seeking to make it up by the double-length Bible study or a Church invite to a colleague. In reality, such thinking runs contrary to the idea of one of my last blog entries – that which considered the value of sound doctrine over the vagaries of spiritual experience. It was my wife who pointed this out to me last Thursday, during our scheduled weekly Bible study (a valuable new initiative that I hope lasts the course). I was moaning on about how I was feeling low and unsuccessful as a Christian that week. She simply pointed out that if, as I love to point out, my Christian reawakening has been due to understanding of the Scriptures rather than by the addictive buzz of a ‘spiritual high’, then my attitude towards God should be governed by that same constancy that characterizes God’s word. Just as the truths by which I am saved are unchanging, so should be the joy within me at such salvation. We are not, after all, a religion seeking heaven by deeds. Were we not doomed to fall short every time, then Jesus wouldn’t have had to die for us in the first place.

But to add balance… We should hate sin – and hate it in ourselves. Repentance requires a degree of sorrow. We can’t shrug our shoulders at our sin and absolve ourselves of responsibility. But there is a difference between sorrow and feeling sorry for ourselves. Our behaviour is the greatest act of witness and the greatest evidence of Christ’s work in us to the world. But investing too much in our own power to ‘be good’ is an act of futility. We’re not inherently good so we might as well get used to it. Our time is better spent addressing the state of our hearts. Sinful acts are a symptom of inner rebellion, and to try and clean up our behaviour alone is like trying to cure a cold by blowing our nose – a short term fix and essentially futile. The truth is that it’s all about which we feed and know best – our spiritual self or our worldly self, both present and conflicting within our hearts. If we invest time, thought and effort into our relationship with God rather than into our relationship with the world, then godly behaviour will naturally follow, just as will that elusive joy. Similarly, if we devote ourselves entirely to a godless culture, then we will reflect the fact in the people we are. Spending regular time with God’s word and seeking him out won’t stop us from messing it up (‘All have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God’ – Romans 3:23), but perhaps we won’t mess it up all the time! And even if feel we do, well the equation with God is just the same as it was the week before.

Given an opportunity, I may next write an entry about the stag weekend I just spent in Dublin with an entirely non-Christian group. If so, I really hope others continue to draw encouragement from the fact that someone else is also battling with those often unspoken issues we all face – how to spend 14 hours in a pub and not end up wrecked or how best to extricate ourselves from the strip club scenario without looking like a killjoy (don’t worry, I won that battle!). But I also hope that, for the rest of the time, people don’t give themselves too hard a time for the fact they too find the Christian journey difficult, and that they too have to utilize God’s willing offer of forgiveness on a daily basis. We’re all in the same boat!!

SIN AND ME

Posted 6/2/07

This isn’t a clever Bible-backed study, but merely an attempt to articulate the thoughts prevalent in my head. I have found myself wondering ever more of late at the nature of sin, my attitude to it and its effects on me. I have been prompted to do so for a number of different obscure reasons. Primarily, I used to visit the site of an American Christian whose ‘ministry’ is to watch films and record any sinful/ inappropriate content in order that he can advise Christian parents as to their suitability. He is somewhat extreme in his judgements, giving prohibitive ‘red light’ warnings (within a ‘traffic light system’) to the likes of Toy Story, the Chronicles of Narnia and E.T., all backed by Bible verses, whilst often walking out in disgust at films that arouse his particular fury. I used to visit the site to ridicule his methods and phraseology, even writing him a somewhat arrogant e-mail criticising his methods (I’m afraid I may even have advised him to keep an ‘open mind’). Now, upon rediscovering his predictably ‘fire and brimstone’ styled response to me four years later, I find myself revising my opinions. Do I think he is right to discredit most films? No. So did I hold the moral high ground in our exchange? Well I doubt that too.

I have always felt somewhat superior to Christians, like my aforementioned adversary, who can’t abide the company of sinners and sin. Such a tendency has always been backed by the idea that those I have met who must leave a room at the first instance of swearing/ nudity on TV or drunkenness in person, could never truly be ‘in the world’ to the extent of forging real relationships with those outside the church. The idea may even be sound – it is easy to seem judgemental and alien – in loudly disapproving of the sin we too easily disapprove of the person. However, I have undoubtedly failed to balance such an approach with the necessary input of what is godly. It is not healthy to surround ourselves with non-Christians if there are no Christian friends to counter their influence. Neither is it okay to be feeding ourselves a diet of films depicting violence/sexuality etc if we are not guarding ourselves against their influence with meaningful Bible study and the good guidance of Christian sources. It would be better, far better, to not see those things at all.

It is all very well to pat myself on the back at how my many non-Christian friends will see me as a shining light and be thus led to the gospel (another frequent justification I have used for my resisting immersion into the Christian clique), but this will not happen by magical osmosis whilst I rarely speak meaningfully to them about it, and drink as much as they do of an evening, thus negating any example. This is not to condemn myself as a terrible person – I have felt that way at times, but no self-examination or peer review could paint me as violent, an adulterer, a nasty person, an addict or much else to threaten my standing as a good husband and positive role model as a teacher. However, that is not the point. Nor is it enough. I was reading earlier that our perception of sin merely regards the outward expression of true sin – that is our rebellious nature and our compulsion to disregard God’s law, as ensured since The Fall. The fact is that I have, for the most part, remained fine with that rebellion and the offence it causes to God. I am not offended enough by sin. Whilst the above reviewers’ overtly hostile response to sin and sinners may be counter-productive, I fear it is wrong that I don’t flinch at all at sex scenes, f-words or whilst playing ‘Grand Theft Auto’ on the PSP. Returning to that earlier e-mail, he countered my appeal for an ‘open mind’ by sharply retorting that I too should keep an open mind – ‘open to God and his Word’. It’s true. Whilst embracing culture too uncritically, I have read the Bible selectively and taken what I want from it, oh-so-cleverly arguing against the scarier aspects of the Old Testament or even Paul’s letters (a recent perusal of 1 John is a contributing factor to all this angst).

Another contributor this week has been the autobiography of comedian and entertainer Frank Skinner, a true believer of God (albeit through a thoroughly Catholic lens) who spends half his time lighting candles and enduring Mass in penance whilst very publicly celebrating the merits of pornography, sexual promiscuity, laddish behaviour and continually swearing etc. It is all too easy to become a lesser version of this model – popular depiction of Christian repentance lends credence to the idea of ‘sin now pay later’. But our choices are less sins than evidence of sin on a deeper level. If we are comfortable with, or particularly prone to, these acts then some proportion of our heart is hardened to God, His will and His hatred of that sin.

Wrong choices all have consequences. It is perhaps that which I am realising most right now. If I wonder why I am so far from where I should be nearly 28 years into my life – why I know God and his will for me less than I should and have struggled to find a place in his family – then I need to re-examine my choices. They all came with a ready-made excuse. My teenage pride and sixth-form party lifestyle (‘a natural part of adolescence and an understandable reaction to my sheltered upbringing’) at the expense of school CU and church commitment led to great personal angst and selfishness in setting a bad example to my brothers, leading to a near fatal incident for one of them, whilst undoing much of the good work in my childhood Christian development. My decision not to attend Christian Union at university nor join a church (‘a need to find my own faith in my own time, not just do what my parents expected’) led to a great and significant stalling in my development as a Christian and caused me to miss out on a time of great potential fellowship. It left me less likely to make good decisions and, for example, the pornography I viewed in my dwelling with 6 non-Christian lads has left indelible mental images, impacting upon my expectations of sex and the godliness of my thoughts. Over the years the films I have watched, the books I have read, the company I have kept, and the selfish decisions I have made have all served to desensitise me towards sin and have led me to often feel out of place in churches (several of which we have joined and left), usually blaming the church in the meantime. Throughout all of this I have believed steadfastly in my salvation through Jesus and have prayed in times of need, knowing I have been saved. But I have still paid a price for my disobedience, alongside my blessings, and I deserve to be held accountable, as I will be, for those I could have reached by example or counsel who instead saw me drunk.

So what to do? Well as I said I’m not a case for despair and I am learning that it works the other way too. The input of a good church over the previous year has led me to such ruminations, particularly when allied to a thought-provoking Bible study group and a burgeoning interest in Christian discussion blogs – as a historian, the cut & thrust of theology naturally appeals. Just as negative inputs lead to bad choices, so good inputs can bring us gently into the fold. At first everyone thinks they have to get their behaviour right through their own strength, and they fail. Then, like me, they might twig that prayer and a relationship with God makes it a lot more likely that appropriate behaviour will naturally follow as our heart changes. Well I worked that out a long time ago and have since wondered why it is then that I so often seem unable to do the praying and relationship bit. It is only now I am realising that as weak humans we need the third part to this puzzle. We are going to develop that thirst for time with God by the constant reminders and encouragement of a Christian community. If we neglect that, then it will be Satan who pulls us in the other direction through the many cultural distractions that, little by little, harden our hearts.

So am I going to throw away my 18-rated movies and hip-hop? No, I’m not as I appreciate many of both as thought-provoking or simply fine art inspired by God-given talent. But I will be careful of what I put in, monitor its likely impact on me and others, and balance it with Christian input in order that I might gain required wisdom. Will I ditch my non-Christian friends or rail against their conduct? No – their companionship and support for me is a blessing. But I will invite them to church and will hold myself responsible for my behaviour in front of them. There are still questions I ponder. Could Jesus tolerate sin? At that wedding in Canaan, as wine was drunk by the barrel-load, was Jesus still able to enjoy himself with his disciples if there was drunken singing at the next table along? I would think so – after all, if sin is in the heart of all, unchecked in the case of unbelievers, then Jesus must have been constantly aware of it, whilst still being able to act as a compassionate friend and enjoy at least some of his time on earth. The warning to ‘sin no more’ was never far away, but the evident love that drew people in was not conditional upon their behaviour. However, a response to this approach did clearly demand a change. Speaking personally, that change is probably overdue. Now the tough bit is doing something about it…