Liberating Spiritual Realities
"LIBERATING SPIRITUAL REALITIES"
by Dr. D. W. Ekstrand
While attending graduate school at Arizona State University, I found myself becoming increas-ingly disillusioned with life, and was perplexed as to why I felt so empty and dispirited after everything I had accomplished in life (from a worldly perspective). Feeling bewildered I again cried out to God for help — not long after that I attended a church service one Sunday night, and the man who spoke described his own spiritual journey, and much to my amazement his experience was very similar to mine… and for the first time I understood that the Christian life was a “journey,” and not a one-time experience that essentially fixed everything… that as a believer, though I would never achieve sinless perfection, I would begin to sin less and less as the years went by. So that night, I asked Christ to come into my life (or recommitted my life to Him), and began an exciting life-long journey of faith with Him. I immediately dove into the Word and started reading several books on the Christian faith and what God was now doing in my life, and whenever something was going on at church, I was there. It wasn’t long until I joined the staff of that church to work with Junior High kids… I loved youth ministry, but being a teacher of the Word became somewhat troubling to me because of a passage I read in the book of James — “Let not many of you become teachers because you will incur a stricter judgment” (Jam 3:1). That verse got my attention and I began searching for a seminary to attend (a graduate school of theology for training pastors and teachers) — according to Scripture, if I was going to teach others, that was a “sober responsibility” that needed to be taken very seriously… so within a couple of years I enrolled at Talbot School of Theology in southern California. About four years later after graduating, I returned to that same church in Arizona and began a “ministry to College Students” — I found that to be a tremendously gratifying age-group with which to work and serve, because most of them were really serious about their faith and what God was doing in their lives, and nearly all of them were in the midst of making some of life’s most important decisions.
As the years passed I began working in “Adult Ministries,” serving in executive administrative positions, teaching in various local colleges, and getting my doctorate… all the while sensing a dissatisfaction with my spiritual progress — Why was “sin” still such a painful part of my life? Why wasn’t I making more progress spiritually? Why wasn’t I becoming a much better person deep inside my soul? As these questions intensified in my heart, they began to steal my peace. I knew I had to have answers, but it wasn’t until the Lord subjected me to “a dark, debilitating period in the furnace of affliction,” that a long persistent quest for answers began. It was only after reading some of the writings of “the Puritans” (Thomas Watson, Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, John Newton, Richard Baxter, Richard Sibbes, Octavius Winslow, Charles Spurgeon, John Bunyan, etc), that I finally came to better understand “the spiritual reality of sin in the life of the believer.” Why hadn’t I heard this before? I thought. Why was the topic of “sin in the believer’s life” so poorly taught in our churches? If the church in America was the center of Christian studies in the world, why then was it so “weak and shallow” in its teaching on the doctrine of sin, as it pertains to the believer’s life? Furthermore, why wasn’t this subject “adequately addressed” in our Seminaries and Bible Colleges? These questions were disturbing to me, and it wasn’t until I read some of the works of the Puritans that the Lord gave me some answers — what an incredible blessing those men were to me… finally, after years of disconcerting uncertainty, God opened my eyes to the liberating truth (as opposed to enslaving truth) of “sin in the life of the believer.”
My prayer is that this study will help answer some of the questions that you may have about “the problem of sin,” and that it will be an encouragement to your faith. It should be noted, this study isn’t some radical point of view, that only a select few hold — it is the essence of what the Lord Jesus and the apostles taught. So prayerfully and carefully work your way through it and “ask God to make its message unmistakably clear to you as well.” I might also mention that I have been encouraged of late by the growing number of pastors and teachers across the country who are now teaching this message… so I am pleased to simply be “another conveyor” of this liberating truth. I also want to be careful to stress the fact that I do not possess a level of spiritu-ality that one would describe as “ethereal” (such spirituality does not exist in this life). By the way, due to the profound nature of the various topics covered in this study, I found it necessary to re-edit this study over and over and over again, so every word and thought has been prayerfully reflected upon and carefully chosen. In spite of the normal hurdles that one goes through when putting a study together, many of the concepts in this study are so weighty and challenging (and no doubt upsetting to Satan), that it ended up being a significantly more demanding study than I imagined. My prayer is that you will be “open” to its liberating message, and that it will bless your life in a new and refreshing way (as only truth can). Though I initially set out to do a short study on “Depressed Living vs. Joyful Living” (you can check that study out on my website; you might want to read it as a preface to the following study) — after completing that study, I felt it was necessary that the believer have a fuller understanding of the “bigger spiritual picture” if he was going to navigate his way through life victoriously and joyfully, and that is what this study is all about. As you work your way though this material I would recommend that you “study it,” and not speed read it (you don’t “speed read” divine truth); I would also recommend that you make a “hard copy” of this study, and with Bible and pen in hand highlight and make notes in the margins on those points that are the most meaningful to you… by the way, give particular attention to the “italicized” and “emboldened” words — they are emphasized for a reason. For those of you who are in small groups, this would make a great “small group study,” because the various topics addressed lend themselves to spontaneous interaction and good group dis-cussion. Prayerfully work your way through each of the major topics covered.
The Need to See the Big Picture
Because so many Christians misconstrue and misunderstand various aspects of the Christian faith, it is extremely helpful to see the “bigger picture” so that one’s spiritual perspective on life is more in agreement with reality. Following are thirteen spiritual truths that have been particularly important to me down through the years. I have chosen to present these truths employing a “running dialogue style of writing,” keeping you the reader in mind… since some of the subjects involve a number of related issues, I found it necessary to expand upon a few of those as well. I want to encourage you to carefully reflect upon each truth and consider its impact upon your own faith. Being as this is a “study,” be sure to read the various references that have also been provided — they will enable you to more fully grasp the concepts being presented.
1. We live in a “fallen, sinful world” that is ruled by Satan and his angels; there is absolutely nothing good in it; everything about it “pro-Satan” and is“anti-God”…pro-darkness and anti-light; therefore,once God’s eternal purposes are accomplished here on earth, He is going to completely destroy it. It should be noted—though “Satan is the god of this world” , he does not have the freedom to do as he pleases — everything he does must first cross God’s desk for His approval. Although God is not the“cause” of all things,everything that occurs (both good and bad) ultimately is “approved” or “permitted” by Him for His higher purposes; thus insuring that “Godswill” is ultimately being accomplished,and not Satans. Scripture very clearly teaches that God is in absolute control of all creation, and is working all things after the counsel of “His will” — such is simply the divine prerogative of God— but for some reason that reality is difficult for many believers to accept(more on this later). The Holy Spirit restrains Satan’s hand so that evil does not reign on earth in an absolute sense…therefore God does not permit us to be tempted or tried beyond that which we are able to endure as such, all of our testing is ultimately being overseenby God Himself. It is also important to understand, that though this world is completely corrupt, thing swould be a lot worse if God let sin reign supreme. One of the primary instruments God uses to“restrain sin and evil” in the world is the body of Christ(His Spirit-filled people,His Church); as such,all believers are called to be salt and light in the world.
2. God “redeemed us” out of the marketplace of sin with the blood of Christ. Though He redeemed our souls, He did not redeem our sinful flesh (it was one hundred percent diabolical before we were saved, and it is still one hundred per-cent diabolical today—for some reason most believers think there is actually a little bit of good in their flesh, thus they have a difficult time accepting the fact that it is totally corrupt). It might be helpful to consider the adjudication of God on the created order both the world and man have been found totally lacking of any inherent goodness(we’re not talking about some “external relative goodness” helping an old lady cross the street — we’re talking about “inherent goodness” in one’s essence), thus they will both be destroyed at the end of time. It should be noted, God is not in the business of transforming “your old self” into some-thing better,or making “the old you” better—there is absolutely no hope for the old you, any more than there is for this world; they are both sinful, diabolical wrecks that will one day be totally destroyed. Since that is the case,there is no point in going spiritually berserk because “your flesh” is a diabolical mess; that is simply the reality of its condition (more on this later). By the way, your sinful flesh neither surprises God, nor upsets Him…God is well aware of all the inherent weaknesses we have because of “indwelling sin”(sinful flesh), and actually sympathizes with our weaknesses… He knows how painful debilitating they are. So it is not God who has a difficult time accepting our weaknesses,but us…and for us to not accept them is to “live in a world of unreality” (simply a figment of our imagination — some call it “living a life of spiritual delusion”). The question is,how do you view “your old self” (flesh)? To what degree do you struggle with accepting it? By affirming the truth about your flesh (that it is totally sinful),you will begin to experience a significant degree of “freedom”in your life…no longer will it remain “intolerable baggage” to you that just drives you crazy (more on this later). To not affirm this truth is to remainin“greater bondage” because of it. Let me be clear, Iam not suggesting in the least that“sin” is an acceptable way for the believer to live.
3. When you chose to believe in Christ, you chose to “denounce the self-centered life of sin,” and “embrace the God-centered life of righteousness in Christ”… to reject the “self-life” and embrace the “God-life”… to no longer make “personal happiness” the primary goal in life, but “God’s will” the primary goal. Essentially you said no to “sin” at the cross, and yes to “righteousness” (Mt 16:24-25; Rom 1:17; 2 Cor 5:17, 21; Eph 2:10; 4:22-24; Phil 1:21; Col 3:1-10; 1 Th 4:3, 7; Titus 2:11-14). Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) said, “Conversion is a real turning from sin to God — it is the recovery of the image of God in men.” The chief characteristic of newness of life is “God-centered-ness;” the false convert remains “self-centered” — “self” is the one abiding interest of the unregenerate life. All of us as believers hate sin and love righteousness… but because of the presence of indwelling sin (flesh/self), we all continually struggle with living out what we believe in our hearts (Gal 5:16-17; Jam 3:1; 1 Jn 1:10). The famous Scottish preacher & evangelical mystic Oswald Chambers (1874-1917) put it this way — “Sometimes I wish God would master and control me, and make me do what He wants!” Don’t we all! but that’s not how God operates — He never forces us to do anything in life; thus we are all one hundred percent responsible for all the choices we make. God simply orchestrates the circumstances of our lives, and convicts us by the Holy Spirit as to how we should respond, that we might bring about His desired goals of holiness, godliness and righteousness (Gen 50: 20)… but we are the ones who ultimately choose to conform or not conform to His will, and when we choose to not conform, we do so because we defer to the contrary voice of the flesh.
The eighteenth century English theologian and preacher, John Newton (1725-1807), believed it of first importance that ministers understand that “grace matures slowly.” He put it this way, “A Christian is not of hasty growth, like a mushroom… but rather like the oak, the progress of which is hardly perceptible, but in time becomes a great deep-rooted tree… though God works powerfully [within us], for the most part He works gently and gradually” (“Letters by John Newton,” ed. Josiah Bull, Banner of Truth, 2007, pp. 124, 285). Newton wrote the following encouraging [abridged] words to a fellow minister — “I groan under darkness and confusion as much as ever… I believe I must depart this world with the same language upon my lips which I used when I first ventured to the throne of grace: ‘Have mercy upon me, O Lord, a poor worthless sinner’ [take note, that was not insincere piety; cf. Is 6:5]. My feelings are faint… my services feeble and defiled… my defects, mistakes, and omissions innumerable… my imaginations are wild as the clouds in a storm… yea, too often foul as a common sewer. What can I set against this mourning confession? Only this — that Christ died and rose again… upon His person, worth, and promise, rests all my hope… but this foundation is able to bear the greatest weight!” (“The Works of John Newton,” Banner of Truth, 1988, vol. 6, p. 286). That my friend is the essence of the gospel! With Newton each of us may sing, “Tis grace [alone that] has brought me safe thus far, and grace [alone] will lead me home.” Writes Newton —
Strange and mysterious is my life;
What opposites I feel within!
A stable peace, a constant strife;
The rule of grace, the power of sin;
Too often I am captive led,
Yet daily triumph in my Head. [Christ]
4. Once we were saved we embarked upon a “life-long spiritual journey of discipleship,” which essentially is a life of “walking with Christ by faith” through the power of the Holy Spirit (Jn 15:1-5; 1 Cor 6:19; Gal 2:20; 5:16-25; Eph 5:18). As mentioned above, this is a struggle because of the presence of indwelling sin (the flesh) in our lives (Gal 5:16-17; Jam 1:14-15). The truth of the matter is, we are all a serious work in progress with a truckload of foibles… as such, we are nowhere close to the perfection that is found in Jesus Christ. It is not only amazing that God accepts us in our sinful condition (only because of His love), but that He accepts our weak and imperfect faith as well — our faith is not nearly as strong as some of us proudly profess. Since every aspect of salvation is by grace, none of us have anything at all to boast about, other than Christ! (1 Cor 1:31; 2 Cor 10:17; 12:9). If you cannot humbly share that fact with others, your proud heart is keeping you from a deep liberating peace & joy. Jesus said, “If you abide in My word… you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (Jn 8: 31-32); that is a powerful, life-changing statement! Note the proviso: in order to experience genuine freedom, one must “abide in His Word” — that is, we must walk in fellowship with God and fully accept the truth. When we embrace the truth of God’s Word for our life, the Holy Spirit then “sets us free in the inner man” from the bondage of sin and that which is not true ( Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:13) — when untruth reigns in our hearts (such as God being disappointed in us, or believing that our flesh is fairly good), bondage results; conversely, when truth reigns, liberty results, and this is effectuated in us by the power of the Holy Spirit — He is the one who sets us free within, and causes us to spiritually reap what we sow. By the way, never disconnect God from His Word (truth), as if they are two separate entities (that one exists without the other); God is a unified whole; He is the “active living Word!” (Jn 1:1, 14; Col 3:16; Heb 4:12; Rev 19:13); His Word is not simply a collection of written words that people can reflect upon… He is the living reality behind those words… His words are not just abstract principles… they are alive! God is the “active potentate” behind all that transpires in the universe! (more on this later).
With that said, let me return to the point we were making — if you cannot humbly admit to others that “your flesh is totally sinful,” then you are simply keeping yourself in bondage to a lie (that your flesh really isn’t that bad, or you don’t want others to believe it is bad); as such you are forfeiting the liberty God died to give you (Jn 8:36; Rom 8:2; 2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1, 13). The ques-tion that begs asking is this: “Why can’t you openly admit your true condition?” It’s not as if you are the only believer with a “sin disposition” — every one of us has one! — “only God is good!” (Lk 18:19). It’s no wonder that Christians can’t “confess their sins to one another” (Jam 5:16) — they’re simply too proud! Consider this: if church leaders and older mature believers (parents) don’t humbly admit their true condition, how in the world can we expect younger, less mature believers to do so? Simply admit it and enjoy the liberation God wants you to have! The problem with the Christian community in 20th century America was that the vast majority of believers were good at “pretense” — most still are! — pretending to be what they were not (fairly good on the inside)… that was a significant part of their faith; in short, it was a “theological must for them;” they simply had to “feel good about themselves” in some way. Most churches even preached the need for believers to “love themselves” so that they could “love others,” because if they didn’t love themselves how could they possibly love others?… as such, Christians were good at living a life that “gained the respect of others” (an approval they desperately needed — in a sense it was somewhat “pharisaical”), all the while struggling to “accept” who they really were on the inside (which they could not disclose). Many of us are by-products of that theological culture — it was a life of conflicting doctrinal incongruities. With that said, we have to be careful not to judge our elders too harshly, because that’s the culture in which they were also raised. Remember “hindsight is perfect vision,” but we don’t have the luxury of walking through this life with hindsight. I often hear “politically correct pundits” proclaim their virtue by saying, “they would never do some particular wrong that ‘so-and-so’ just did!” I’m not sure what’s worse, the wrong they’re condemning, or the “proud heart” they’re exhibiting! Everybody likes to condemn others and boast about their own virtue (pride!). I find it nauseating (yes, that’s a judgment of someone else… but it was the “self-proclaimed righteousness of others” that really angered our Savior). Always keep in mind that we will each be judged by the same standard by which we judge others (Mt 7:2).
The nature of biblical faith is that of “living according to truth” — faith not only involves an intellectual assent to the truth, but also a volitional component of trust, commitment and obedience; so “faith without works is no faith at all” (Jam 2:14-26; Gal 5:6); faith without works is like calling the “drawing of a car” an actual car (obviously it is not). Furthermore, the founda-tion upon which genuine faith rests is “truth;” thus for a person to believe something that is “not true” (regardless of the reason), does not validate that proposition. It is also important to remember that genuine truth must be received, believed and obeyed, for it to be “liberating” (Jn 8:32). The Bible says that “truth sets us free” from the bondage of sin and death (cf. Jn 8:36; Rom 8:2; Gal 5:1, 13) — since that which is “not of faith is sin” (Rom 14:23), by definition, truth sets us free from the bondage of false beliefs and a pseudo faith (a belief that does not align with Scripture). The fact is “untruth is not liberating” (contrary to what postmodern man claims: “what is true for you is not necessarily true for me”) — untruth actually puts us in bondage! Remember, truth is “not relative” — it is “absolute!” When truth is accepted and acted upon, it is made efficacious and operative in our lives by the Holy Spirit; as such, we reap what we sow spiritually (Rom 8:6; Gal 5:22; 6:7). So faith is knowing, believing and obeying “the truth” (Jn 1:12; 14:6, 15; Rom 10:17; Heb 11:1, 6).
Because “faith” is such a disconcerting issue for many believers, let’s take a look at it from another perspective. In the past 200 years a number of “Christian groups” have tried to make their relationship with God “more than a faith relationship” — people have insisted that it possess a degree of realism that transcends faith, that they actually experience an evidential manifestation of His presence; but such a level of realism is outside the bounds of Scripture. The problem is, as human beings we want a relationship with God that is more than just a matter of faith (we’re too touchy, feely-oriented to just be satisfied with faith) — when we insist that it have a degree of realism that exceeds faith, and our relational experience fails to demonstrate or evidence that, we then become spiritually disillusioned and disappointed; but that expectation is not biblical. Obviously, we would all like a relationship with God that contains the level of realism that awaits us in heaven, but the divine economy under which we live here on earth does not provide for that. Jesus said to James and His disciples — “Blessed are those who believe and have not seen” (Jn 20:29), and that my friend is the norm. We only know Christ at this point “by faith,” and demanding that it include more than that is simply not biblical. We have never gazed upon Christ with our physical eyes, and as long as we live in these physical bodies we must be content to only know Him by faith… to only know Him “in part” — not fully (1 Cor 13:12). As the apostle Paul said — “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7); though all of us would like our relationship with God to be one that involves more than faith, that is outside the realm of possibility. Furthermore, to insist on “hard evidence” actually weakens our faith, because we are not satisfied with just living by faith — when faith alone is not sufficient for us, that is the work of Satan in our soul. You can scream and rant and rave all you want, but God is not going to “satisfy such demands;” taking such a position is insisting that God operate differently in your life than He does in others… that “He must grant you some special dispensation that includes more than faith!” Again, that understand-ing is diabolical in its origin!
The Bible says, “we groan for more and wait eagerly for our full redemption, but we shall not experience it until we are glorified in heaven” (Rom 8:23-25)… the apostle Paul goes on to say, “while we are at home in our bodies we are absent from the Lord” (2 Cor 5:6). Paul longed for that time when he would be in God’s presence (1 Th 4:17). Abraham longed to be in that city whose architect and builder is God (Heb 11:10). The Psalmist thirsted to be in the presence of the living God (Ps 42:1-2). Remember, “our faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1), and when we “insist” on making our relationship with God “more than that,” we err and suffer disappointment (and rightly so). So stop insisting that God operate differently in your life than He does in others. Beloved, we are “spatially separated” from God here on earth, and must encourage ourselves with the fact that “that glorious consummation of intimate fellowship with God in heaven awaits us!” (cf. Phil 3:20-21; Col 3:1; 1 Tim 6:12-14; 2 Tim 4:7-8; Titus 2:11-14; 2 Pet 3:12; 1 Jn 3:2-3). As long as we demand that our relationship with God possess a greater degree of realism than faith itself provides, we will frustrate ourselves with unfilled expectations that are outside the realm of biblical truth… so don’t insist on having some evidential manifestation to make you a stronger Christian — such thinking is inspired by the serpent of old, and he knows only too well that if he can keep you disappointed with your faith, he will win the war in your soul! If you find yourself contending with this truth, it is “your flesh” that is doing so! Seek the “truth” in all things! and nothing else! (cf. Deut 4:2; 12: 32; Prv 30:6; Rev 22:18).
The Bible views faith’s convictions as certainties and equates them with knowledge that ultimately rests upon the testimony of God, who does not lie (Titus 1:1-2; Col 1:10; 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Tim 2:25; Heb 11:1; 2 Pet 3:18; 1 Jn 5:18-20)… as such God’s Word is utterly trustworthy; to reject the testimony of God is to call Him a liar (1 Jn 5:10). So faith rests upon right beliefs about God and His promises (theologians refer to it as orthodoxy). If we are “struggling with our faith” (such as doubting God’s love or forgiveness or the fact that He is really “for us”), that means there is some truth that we are “not accepting,” and some untruth (error) that we “are accepting.” That is one of the reasons we are exhorted in Scripture “to grow in our faith — from a position of weak faith to a position of strong faith” (Mt 6:30; 8:26; 16:8; 17:20; Mk 9:24; Rom 1:17; 4:20; 12:2; 14:1; 1 Cor 2:5; 2 Cor 10:15; Gal 5:6: Eph 4:15; 1 Th 3:2, 10; 2 Th 1:3; 1 Tim 6:12; Heb 11:6; 1 Pet 2:2; 2 Pet 1: 5-10; 2 Pet 3:18; 1 Jn 5:4), and this happens by studying and applying the Word (Rom 10:17). Incidentally, you cannot have a strong faith without being a student of the Word; to believe otherwise is a contradiction of Scripture. It would be like a person calling himself a great athlete and never exercising (it conflicts with reality). That’s why the “Sunday only Christian” (just a church-going Christian) has a very weak faith — he is spiritually impoverished. In order to have a strong faith it is essential that a believer inductively study the Word every day… wrestle with its truths… and perseveringly apply them through the ups/downs of life.
5. Because we continue to “inhabit sinful flesh” we are in a constant battle with it — the flesh is an extremely active force in every believer’s life (contrary to what some may believe)…it always presents its sinful, selfish perspective, and demands its own way. Almost all of our thoughts are presented, challenged, or defended by the flesh… as such,the apostle Paul told us to“take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ”. Essentially, the flesh “desires or lusts” (same word) after pleasure, possessions, andposition…some prefer to describe these desires as appetite, avarice, and ambition…still others prefer sensual desires, materialistic values, and self-gloryegoism. Whatever your preference, these are the three main categorical passions of the flesh,and all of us struggle in all three areas. Remem-ber,“you sin because you want to sin (i.e., your flesh wants to); common sense ought to tell you that if you didn’t want to sin you wouldn’t sin”—when the desires of the flesh are stronger than the desires of the Spirit in your heart, you sin(even if it is just in thought). Should your eject the reality that your flesh is “totally sinful,” you will not only continue to live in a “world of unreality” and succumb to the flesh far more often than not, but you will really struggle with experiencing a deep abiding peace and joy.
Many believers “continually beat themselves up” because of their sinful flesh — they recog-nize that they are shamefully sinful, but can’t for the life of them solve their problem! By the way, that’s like beating yourself up because you can’t run a hundred meters in five seconds, or run a mile in one minute — some where along the line they have completely misunderstood the reality of their flesh; as such, “they demand that their flesh deliver a much better product!” Therefore, because they are not performing to their satisfaction, they are totally frustrated with themselves. Obviously, they reason, a person can’t just sin that grace might abound, and that is true (Rom 6: 1-2)… but as incredible as it may sound, when they do sin “grace does abound to them!” (Rom 5: 20-21; Jam 2:1, 12). Their problem is, they are letting “their flesh” be the spiritual determinant of reality, rather than the truth of what Christ accomplished for them at the cross (more on this later). Let me return to the point we were making earlier — due to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, “it is not possible to purposely choose to live a life of sin” (as some might be inclined to think) — why? because God’s hand rests upon us so heavily when we choose to sin, the pain is simply too much for us to bear (Ps 32:3-5; 31:10; 38:1-9, 18, 22). By the way, if you have no discomfort when you sin, you’re not a believer. So to purposely live in sin is not an option for the believer. Remember, God placed a “new heart” in us at salvation, so the innermost desire of every believer is to walk in righteousness, not sin (Ezek 36: 26-27; Gal 5:17). It is essential that we not only understand “our inward condition” but that we accept it — both indwelling sin and the Holy Spirit reside in us, and are continually fighting against each other… as such, “a constant state of war is being waged in the soul” (Rom 7:14 – 8:11; Gal 5:17). Obviously, it is difficult for us to comprehend the fact that the God of creation lives within us (1 Cor 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Col 1:27), as well as our sinful flesh, but that is the reality. Thus as believers we are to continually be aware of the fact that both God and sin are present within us. The reformer Martin Luther put it this way: “The believer is simultaneously saint and sinner.” The question is, “Can you “accept” that?” or does your sinfulness frustrate you too much? (which is the case for most believers). Should you choose not to accept this reality, you will end up living in a “world of unreality” (simply a figment of your imagination), and as such you will continue to struggle accordingly (because you will be in bondage to your flesh).
Before concluding this section, let me share the following perspective on spiritual reality — essentially there are two realms in the universe: an evil realm and a holy realm. When applied to the world in which we live, one could say there is that which is worldly and that which is heavenly… that which is flesh and that which is Spirit… that which is physical and that which is spiritual… that which is “feeling” and that which is “faith.” I include that which is “physical” in the evil realm, because the entire physical universe was cursed at the fall (even though the created order still reflects God’s majesty & glory), and it is the primary realm in which the flesh operates. In addition, I include that which is “feeling” in the evil realm, because that is the main motivational determinant by which the flesh operates. Despite the fact that one could make a spiritual case for that which is physical and that which is feel-ing, nevertheless I chose these four categorical delineations to help make the following point — due to the fact that all human beings are “spiritually dead without Christ” (Eph 2:1), they are totally governed by the “flesh” — as such, they essentially respond positively to everything that is worldly, physical, and feels good (the three main appetites of the flesh are pleasure, possessions and position)… and they respond negatively to anything that deprives them of those appetites. I raise this point because all of us have the principle of “indwelling sin” (flesh) in us, and it basically operates by the same sentiment in both the regenerate’s soul and the unregenerate’s soul… but since the flesh is at odds with the “indwelling Holy Spirit” in the believer’s soul, its primary focus is on battling the Holy Spirit to gain “control” of our lives — hence, “spiritual warfare.” So rather than just carrying out the normal function with which it operates in the unregenerate’s soul, the believer’s flesh is constantly doing everything it can to take us captive again, primarily by getting us to “doubt God and His Word” incidentally, the flesh carries out its most effective work in our lives when we are experiencing difficult circumstances (the very things God uses to build our faith!); the devil’s no dummy! The last thing he wants us to have is a “strong faith in God!” Since the unregenerate is already enslaved to the flesh, he doesn’t have this “spiritual conflict” going on inside of him, so he simply weighs the selfish advantages his flesh presents to him, and responds accordingly (in conjunction with God’s moral law in his conscience — which all human beings possess); so he ultimately chooses that which affords him the greatest personal happiness — man’s chief end from a fleshly perspective.
6. Because the task of overcoming the fleshis admittedly a“gargantuan task,” and involves a numberof humiliating defeats, there are several thingsweneedtounderstand and accept about our condition. We all stumble often in many ways (Jam 3:1; Heb 4:15; 1 Jn 1:10) — that is just the reality of our condition. That means we will never get to the point in this life where “we feel good about ourselves” — we can feel good about God, and should! — but not us! Feeling good about oneself is to have a “self focus” — we are called to have a “God focus.” None of us have any reason to boast; not even those of us who have been given the serious responsibility of proclaiming His Word & shepherding His sheep; none of us walk on water! In truth, we are all like the “foible-ladened apostles!” You read that correctly, they were no different than you and me. Not a single human ever qualified for sainthood because of some work that he did (contrary to what some churches teach; Acts 10:25-26; 14:15; Rev 19:10; 22:8-9). One of the problems with biographers is that they frequently flatter the individuals about whom they are writing. Human beings love to emphasize “human merit,” but none of us have any! All believers have been made “saints” by the redemptive work of Christ alone… and we are all still “extremely sick individuals” (Ex 33:20; Ps 24:3; Is 6:5; Rom 7:18, 24; 1 Pet 4:17-18; 1 Jn 1:8-10; 3:2) whom the Great Physician is committed to taking care of — He fully understands our condi-tion and is continually at work in us administering everything that is needed to see us through to the end (Phil 1:6; 2:13; Heb 4:15; Ps 138:8)… and He is not going to lose a single one of us! (Jn 6:39; Rom 8:28-31)… though some of us may think we’re so unique, we’re going to be the exception! Furthermore, if this transformational work depended upon us, none of us would get one inch off the ground, because it is simply not in us to do so. Think about it, we are going to be made as perfect as “Christ!” How in the world could we do that? We’re like a box of rocks next to mountain of pure gold! The 19th century American hymn writer Annie Hawks wrote about our need of God’s tender-loving care every moment of life in her hymn, “I Need Thee Every Hour.” The wonderful reality of this hymn is that it pleases God when we acknowledge our need of Him, and cry out to Him for help and depend upon Him in our admittedly weak condition… yet Satan and our flesh would have us believe that our condition is actually dis-gusting to God! Think about it this way — how do you feel about your little child when he cries and poops in his diapers? (humbling as it may be, spiritually we’re all wearing diapers and pooping in them all the time!). Do you pick your little child up and change his diapers and hug him, or do you holler at him, spank him, stick him in a dark room and slam the door on him? Now carefully think about how God responds to you every time you poop in your diapers… and reflect upon the words to Annie Hawks’ hymn —
I need Thee every hour, most gracious Lord;
No tender voice like Thine can peace afford.
I need Thee, O I need Thee, every hour I need Thee!
O bless me now, my Savior, I come to Thee.
The facts are these: We all sin repeatedly… and are at the mercy of God continually (even those among us who want us to think that “they are almost divine”) — that is simply the reality of the believer’s condition. Every selfish and discouraging thought… every anxious and frus-trating thought… every proud and grumbling thought has a large component of “sin” in it. It has been said by countless theologians down through the centuries: “No believer is capable of one absolutely pure thought at any time (not a single thought!), because every thought of every believer is tainted with some degree of sin” (be it pride or whatever), though some of our thoughts are obviously far more tainted than others. With that said, the problem for every believer is this — because of the overwhelming presence of sin in our lives (flesh), we often become “discouraged” in our Christian walk; the reason being is that we are more inclined to “focus on our sinful performance” than we are to focus on the grace that is ours in Christ. The Canon of St. Albans Cathedral in England, Arthur Bennett, compiled a collection of Puritan prayers and devotions in a book titled, “The Valley of Vision” (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975) — in it is a prayer of one of the Puritans under the heading “Need of Grace” — following is an abridged version of that prayer:
O Lord, Thou knowest my great unfitness for service,
my present deadness, and my distressing coldness of heart.
I am weak, ignorant, unprofitable, and loathe and abhor myself.
I feel amazingly deserted by Thee, and sense Thy presence so little.
Thou makest me possess the sins of my youth, and the dread of my sin nature.
Return again with showers of converting grace to a poor gospel-abusing sinner.
Help me, O Lord, to hold out until the happy hour of deliverance comes,
for I cannot lift my soul to Thee if Thy goodness brings me not nigh.
I confide in Thee and lean upon Thee, and need Thee at all times to lead me.
O that all my distresses and apprehensions might prove but Christ’s school
to make me fit for greater service by teaching me the great lesson of humility.
What a powerful prayer — in it he acknowledges his distressing sinfulness, the overwhelming darkness in his soul, and his need of more of God’s transforming grace in his life. He closes it with the refrain that this debilitating experience “might prove to be but Christ’s school to make him fit for greater service.” This servant of the Most High knew that life, ultimately, was all about “humbly focusing on Christ” (Heb 12:2), and not himself — when we focus on our-selves it naturally discourages us (Rom 7:18), because we are not the persons we want to be or think we should be. Remember, the Christian life is not about us… it is all about Christ! He made us for His glory, He saved us for His glory, and He is going to be glorified in and through our lives to the end, in spite of the fact that we stumble and fall repeatedly (Rom 11:36; 1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:16; 1 Tim 1:17; Jude 1:24-25), and that is why the gospel is such incredibly good news! Unless we as believers can appreciate how sinful we really are (Rom 7:18), we will never appreciate how much God truly loves us! If we hold on to a degree of “personal goodness,” we will only lessen the impact of God’s love for us and the magnitude of His grace!
7. When you became a child of God, “you became a brand new creature! — not a remodel!” “Old things passed away, and new things came!” (2 Cor 5:17). You need to understand that “you are not the same person you were!”… you are now a “completely different person!” you are a “new creation!”… you have been “born again!” … “born from above!” (Jn 3:3)… you now have a “new heart!… and you have an entirely new “internal guidance system!” (the Holy Spirit!). Just as your first birth was necessary for “physical life,” so your second birth was necessary for “divine life,” which is precisely what your new life is (Jn 3:16; 5:24; Rom 6:4; Col 1:27; 3:4) — you are now a “righteous creature” rather than a “unrighteous creature!” Simply undergoing a “physical birth” is not enough to get us into the kingdom of God — we must also undergo a “spiritual birth” effectuated by the Holy Spirit (Jn 3:5; Titus 3:5). This new birth is entirely the work of God, and takes place when a person places his trust in Christ” (Jn 3:36; Acts 16:31). This “spiritual reality” is described in Scripture as follows — when we became new creations we were “spiritually placed in Christ” (i.e., “baptized into Christ”) by the Holy Spirit, so all believers are “spiritually in Christ” (Rom 6:3, 11; 8:1; 1 Cor 1:30; Gal 3:27; Col 1:28; 1 Pet 5:14) — that is a favorite expression of the apostle Paul. The Holy Spirit placed you “in Christ” 2,000 years ago at the cross — so when “Christ died,” you died with Him… and when “Christ was raised from the dead,” you were raised with Him. Keep in mind that you were in Christ in a “spiritual sense” (not physical). Since the foregoing is true, every believer died with Christ on the cross, and was raised with Him three days later — and this happened because the Holy Spirit had “baptized us into Christ” or “placed us in Christ” (Rom 6:3-6; Gal 2:20). As such, the apostle Paul says we are to “consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11)… and that essentially is what transpired when we were born again. To help you better grasp this concept, draw a “picture of Jesus Christ” on a piece of paper, and put a “small stick figure of yourself” inside the drawing of Jesus… now imagine that that little stick figure is really “you” — the logic then is this: whatever happened to Jesus, happened to you! So visualizing yourself as being “in Christ” helps you see “your position in Christ” (read Eph 2:6). Don’t forget, what we are talking about here is a “spiritual reality.” Here’s another way to look at this spiritual truth — “God is spirit” (Jn 4:24) — for us to truly be “one with Him” we must then be “spiritually alive in Him” (that is the essence of a perfect union). Remember, every human being is either “spiritually dead” (separated from God), or “spiritually alive in (God) Christ” (Jn 17:21-24; Eph 2:1, 4-6; Col 2:13). Re-read this paragraph if it is not clear to you.
At this point in our study, it is important to understand that the “old you” (i.e., your flesh) is no longer who you really are… you are now the “new you”… meaning your identity is now that of being “a holy child of God – a saint” (Jn 1:12; Eph 1:1); by the way, God’s offspring aren’t sinful… your flesh is sinful, but “you” are not sinful! I didn’t say you don’t sin… I said the “new you” is not sinful. Therefore, since you are no longer the “old you,” you must no longer identify yourself with “your flesh” as if that is still “you” — because it is not. This is not just a play on words. You may continue to call it “your flesh,” but recognize that it is “not you!” Though your flesh still resides in you, it is now a “sinful alien force” that is trying to control you. Obviously, it would be great if we could “evict it from the premises,” but since we are not able to do that, we have to “continually fight with it so that it does not usurp control” (Gal 5:17; Eph 6:12) — which it passionately wants to do. Now with that in mind, you should be able to readily admit that your flesh is an “unwelcome tenant in your house” (your life), and that its presence “disgusts you!” Basically, that is the way you need to “view your flesh” in your mind and before God — in doing so, you are simply “fully agreeing with God about your flesh,” and fully acknowledging its diabolical nature, because that is precisely what it is — because it is “not the new you,” identify it for what it is and learn to differentiate yourself from it. Tell God how much you despise it, and how it pains you when you submit to its ways… always being mindful of the fact that “it is not you!” Thus when you are “tempted to do evil,” recognize that it is your “diabolical flesh” that wants to sin — not you! By the way, your orders as a believer are to “slay your flesh every day” (Rom 8:13, 36; 1 Cor 15:31).
Remember, you were born into God’s family because of “the loving work of Christ on the cross” (you contributed nothing; all you brought to the cross was sin), so always rejoice in the spiritual reality of who you now are because of God’s love and grace — furthermore, it has nothing to do with “you feeling super-spiritual” (that which is spirit is “not felt;” flesh is “felt”) — just because you don’t “feel” like God forgives you, doesn’t mean you are not forgiven… faith rests upon the reality of “divine truth,” and has nothing to do with “your feelings.” So, grammatically, always speak of the “old you” in the third person (more on this in just a moment), because it is no longer you! (whether you feel like it is or not). A vital part of the Christian faith is “reckoning certain things to be true” (Rom 6:11; 7:18; 8:1, 18, 28-30) that have absolutely nothing to do with how you feel! — God loves you… you’re His child… your sins are forgiven (past, present, future)… you are heaven bound… your future destiny is guaranteed — regardless of the fact that you continue to sin because of the presence of indwelling flesh, has absolutely nothing to do with your eternal destiny! One day you are going to be glorified and become like Jesus! There are numerous “spiritual realities” you need to affirm as TRUE… because they are true! Contrary to what your flesh or Satan say!
I want you to notice how carefully the apostle Paul describes his flesh in his letter to the Romans — “Since I find myself doing the very thing that I really hate doing (sinning), then I must conclude that it is no longer ‘me’ (the new me) that is doing it, but ‘sin’ (the old me) which indwells me” (Rom 7:16-17; also 7:20). So Paul here is no longer identifying “himself” with “his flesh” – “the indwelling principle of sin” – “his sin disposition” – “his sin nature.” Why? because it is no longer him! Interestingly enough, Paul at this point proceeds to make a case for the seeming “dominant nature” of his flesh / indwelling sin (Rom 7:16-17, 20). I liken the flesh to a “bad, feverish, achy, painful sore-throat” — though you take whatever remedies you can to quell it, sometimes it is just going to “run its course” no matter what you do (cf. Rom 7:17, 20). Before you start thinking, “that’s heresy!” continue reading — it is quite obvious that God sometimes lets our “sin nature” overwhelm us for a bit! Why? So that we might learn the painful lesson of what happens when we repose our trust in it: “bondage” (Rom 7:25)… further-more, when we sin it is “very humbling” — and humility is the pathway of grace (Jam 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5). Think about that. More on this subject below.
Imagine, if you will, what would have happened if Peter “did not sink” when he walked on the water — the Lord Jesus could easily have sustained the small amount of faith that he had (Mt 14:31), and kept him from sinking, but God knew that would not have been in Peter’s “best interest,” nor that of the other disciples who were all mesmerized by what was happening (the other disciples knew that if Peter couldn’t stay afloat, they wouldn’t be able to either). The question this walking on the water episode raises is this — “Do any of us ever exercise ‘perfect faith’?” The answer to that question is an unequivocal “No!” in truth, all of us have a “feeble, imperfect faith” that God graciously accepts. And it is this issue with which the “perfectionist” struggles — he insists on exercising a perfect faith, and because he knows his faith isn’t perfect, he is riddled with guilt; his problem is that he fails to understand and accept his “sin disposition” (that diabolical reality that is at war within him, and with which he must fight until the day he dies). The wonderful news for us as believers is this, God is fully aware of our weaknesses (Heb 4:15) — He has chosen to not remove them or our flesh, and because of His never ending love for us, His love overrides our sinfulness, and He graciously accepts our weak and imperfect faith. Furthermore, God is committed to “growing our faith” (through painful circumstances)… though it will never come close to being a perfect faith. Peter says, “After we have suffered for a little while… God will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish us [and take us home to His eternal glory!]” (1 Pet 5:10). And that my friend is the eternal hope of the believer! (Jn 3:16). The problem with the perfectionist is that he focuses on “his performance” rather than “Christ!” and that is a miserable way to live, because he always fails to measure up! (read this section again).
If Peter would have continued to “walk on the water,” what would the result of that been? Without a doubt he would have developed far more confidence in himself (Mt 26:31-35; 69-75), which is not at all what the believer needs! We need confidence in GOD not US! Further-more, Peter’s pride would have flourished within, and he would have been of absolutely no spiritual good (Mt 16:24; Lk 22:24, 31-34; Jn 15:5). It is simply the nature of man (flesh) to respond in such fashion — none of us are spiritually strong enough to completely subdue the flesh; only by God’s grace do we ever overcome it in any measure. The apostle Paul, after his “heavenly vision” (2 Cor 12:1-4), was given a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from exalting himself (2 Cor 12:7) — it kept him humble! The message is clear, “without the thorn his pride would have kept him fruitless!” Beloved, Peter & Paul were the pillars of the church, and they suffered from the same maladies that you and I suffer from… every believer is housed in sinful flesh, and possesses a limited degree of faith (are you listening?). Remember, it is not “our paltry faith” wherein we have confidence, it is the “object of our faith” in whom we trust (Christ!). Let me say it again, “humility is the pathway of grace” — we would all like to be spiritually proud, but the truth of the matter is, there is no room for pride because we all sin exceedingly more than we believe; our minds are constantly at work thinking one thought after another, and due to the fact the flesh is continually pouring thoughts into our minds, we often think proud thoughts, angry thoughts, judgmental thoughts, discouraging thoughts, critical thoughts, lustful thoughts, selfish thoughts, and disappointing thoughts… the truth is, we are all far more prone to thinking “self-centered thoughts” than “God-centered thoughts!” Don’t forget — “God-centered thoughts” require “intentional effort!” fleshly thoughts do not!
John Newton said the first characteristic of a “mature Christian” is “humility” — the young Christian is more taken up with “his own interests;” only the mature Christian knows more of “dependence on Christ alone” — “he is conscious that he, in and of himself, is nothing, has nothing, can do nothing (Jn 15:5), and sees daily cause for abhorring himself (only the humble abhor themselves) [did you catch that?]. The mature Christian is one who knows he is a poor, weak sinner still!” (Letters of Newton, p. 176). Again, this is not an encouragement to sin because grace abounds, this is an encouragement to know that when we do sin, grace does abound!!! (Rom 5:20; 6:1-2; 2 Cor 9:8); and those are two radically different positions. Remember, love and grace are far greater motivators for obedience than is the threat of punishment (more later).
It is also important to remember, when we “choose to identify with the flesh” (which is often), it simply shows “how weak our faith really is” — Jesus had perfect faith… He walked on water and never sank… none of us come close to walking on water — imagine if we could? think how proud we would be? Some believers like to think they are “ninety percent” there; the truth is, we are probably only about “five percent” there — if you are arguing with that, look at it this way: how much do you resemble Christ? and how much better do you think you’re going to be when you become glorified? Beloved, you better be a whole lot better, or ask for a remake! J The truth is, five percent is probably too generous! (Rom 12: 3). Some-times “perspective” is what is needed in life… and in this case it is “very humbling.” By the way, don’t make a big deal of the number… Scripture simply exhorts us to grow in our faith and trust of Christ (2 Pet 3:18). Will we ever reach “ten percent” in this life? I don’t think so, but the number is irrelevant, “just keep growing!” Because “sin” is such a dark, debilitating experience for us, we need to be mindful of the fact that it actually serves several important purposes in our life — if we rarely sinned, we would be prone to put far more confidence in the flesh than we already do (Phil 3:3; Jude 1:23)… and we would not see the absolute need of humbly depending upon God in all things (Prv 3:5)… additionally, our sinful humiliating moments remind us how sinful and diabolical our flesh is… and how incredibly merciful and gracious God is. By the way, each of these elements is critical for “growing in grace.”
One of the advantages of using “first century Greek” to write the New Testament, is that “it was a very exact, definitive language,” meaning that you could be very concise with regard to what you were saying (far more so than in any other language), and that was tremendously important for conveying “spiritual truth” — thus God in His foreknowledge developed the Greek language that was used in the first century Church, in order to give “precise definition to spiritual truth” (and because it is a “dead language” today — no longer used — its truths are set in stone!). By design, NT Greek is far more definitive than any other language, even more so than English, which is also a fairly definitive and exacting language in its own right (it is the leading scientific language in the world today). It should be noted, by referring to “sin” in the “third person” (it, him, her), as opposed to the “first person” (me, my, I), Paul was making it very clear that “he” was not the one who had sinned (Rom 7:17, 20) — rather it was the “sin” in him (his flesh). Again, this is not just a matter of semantics… so when you are praying to God about “your flesh,” identify it for what it is (totally sinful), and fully agree with God about it… and refuse to identify with it as if it is “the real you!” Because it is not! If you are going to continue to beat yourself up over “the presence of indwelling sin” (and how bad “you” are), you are simply taking a load upon yourself that God never intended for you to bear… furthermore, God already bore that load for you at the cross! To hate the fact that “you chose to commit some particular sin” is one thing… to hate yourself because “you are sinful” is quite another — because “the new you is not sinful! — it is born from above!” Your flesh is sinful, but you are not! You are now the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus!!! “The life of Christ” (divine life) is now alive in you!!! (2 Cor 4:10-11) — read that last statement again and again until the reality of it settles in your heart!!! So stop identifying “the new you” as being a “shameful, embarrassing, diabolical wreck” that just can’t get its act together!!! The truth is, you never will get “your fleshly act” together!!! NEVER!!! What is it about “this reality” that you find so difficult to accept?
I know this is a difficult concept to initially grasp, and that you might think this is just a play on words… but this is precisely what Scripture teaches. This is the spiritual reality of who you really are! You are no longer the old you! You are now a new creation! old things have passed away! they are dead! new things have come! (2 Cor 5:17). When you are able to fully grasp the import of that statement, you will be able to treat “your flesh” not only as God’s enemy, but your enemy as well! Liking the “new you” and liking “your flesh” are two com-pletely contrary positions — no believer likes his flesh! unless he somehow thinks that it is really “him!” (which it is not) thus causing him to conclude that “he must like himself!” That kind of thinking is of the devil! He wants you to believe that! But it is spiritual nonsense! Your flesh and my flesh are friends of Satan, and his friends are not our friends! (Mt 13:39; Jn 8: 44; Acts 5:3; 10:38; 26:18; 2 Cor 11:14; Eph 4:27; 6:11; 1 Pet 5:8; 1 Jn 3:8). Never forget, Jesus died to give you a “new life!” and God doesn’t do mediocre work! Everything He does is absolutely perfect! Otherwise we would never get into heaven!!! Again, if you are struggling to reconcile every-thing written in this section, prayerfully re-read it until the reality of “who you really are” begins to settle peacefully in your heart (that is the work of the Holy Spirit). This truth is tremendously liberating for believers. When you come to that point where you fully accept this truth, you will then be able to more easily distance yourself from your flesh and treat it for what it is — completely sinful (Rom 8:7; Gal 5:16; Phil 3:3; 1 Pet 2:11). By the way, you are going to need to “affirm this truth every day of your life!” because Satan is going to continually tell you what a spiritual wreck the so-called “new you” is!
Every child of God hates evil and loves righteousness — that is the result of “the new birth;” so distance yourself from your flesh & differentiate yourself from it in your conversation, because it is no longer who you are. The reason for repeating this truth over and over again is because it is that IMPORTANT. When you accepted Christ as your Savior, you became a “brand new person;” you didn’t just gain some legal, forensic standing before God (though that was a part of it), you became “a child of God!” Prior to salvation you were “spiritually dead,” but now you are “spiritually alive in Christ!” The “person” you were prior to being saved, no longer exists — he died with Christ on the cross — do you believe that? So as a believer, you need to understand that you are now a “new creation,” that “the old you is no more”… “so disconnect yourself from it in your mind!” Though the “old you” did exist, it no longer exists! That is the miracle of the “new birth” that perplexed Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-10).
Grasping this truth will liberate you in ways that are really emancipating, because you will no longer see “your flesh” as “YOU” — it will now be the “old you” that was crucified on the cross (Rom 6:6-11), and you will experience a deep inner joy in your heart, because that is really good news! If the “old you” was crucified on the cross it is now “DEAD;” so to think that it is still “ALIVE” does not make it so (in the sense that it is the “living reality” of who you are). If you were “placed in Christ” by the Holy Spirit (“spiritually baptized into Christ”), then that is what occurred; your inability to fully understand it does not invalidate it as a reality. You simply need to start identifying with the “transformational work” that God did in your life (read Rom 6:11). Though I [admittedly] continue to struggle with my flesh (as all of us do), and will continue to do so until I get to heaven (as will you), I can honestly say that I now experience “significant periods of rest in Christ” that I rarely experienced prior to under- standing this truth. Obviously, I wish it was an ongoing, permanent spiritual experience, but that is not the reality, because “the flesh” is an incredibly stubborn enemy that God continues to use in my life to keep me grounded in His grace… the same goes for you.
Practically speaking, the “sin disposition” in each one of us is in a “constant state of being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit” (Eph 4:22) — that is, “our flesh” is in a pro-gressive state of decline… it is getting worse and worse and worse and worse. None of us have flesh that is “better today” (less corrupted) than it was when we were younger — though our flesh was totally sinful when we were children, the “expressions of our flesh” are more diabolical today than when we were younger. Because this is true, we naturally “struggle more today” with our flesh than we did when we were younger… and it is this “awareness of our corruptness” that is so troubling to most Christians. Because they are not accustomed to “differentiating between their flesh and their born again nature,” they actually think they are “sinful Christians” (i.e., Christians who do not possess a very high degree of goodness that they think they should possess); did you catch that? Most Christians feel “their performance” simply doesn’t cut it (whose does?); hence, they feel like “spiritual failures.” What they failed to do was disassociate themselves from “their flesh” — they just continued to make it an integral part of who they are as a Christian; thus they see the flesh and the new man as ONE PERSON, as if there is “both good & bad in them as God’s child.” They don’t see “their flesh” as a separate entity — they see it as being an integral part of who they are. The reality is they are a “new sinless creation!” (2 Cor 5:17) who has been called by God to “wage war against their old nature… their old sin disposition… their flesh… that sinful alien force in them… and the devil and the entire world of darkness!
Remember it is God’s will that this “sinful enemy” reside in us during our spiritual journey on earth (to accomplish His purposes)… and it is this “sinful enemy” with which we must contend every waking hour — along with loving God and others, contending with the flesh is our primary occupation. By the enablement of the Holy Spirit “we are to put to death the deeds of the body / the flesh” (Rom 8:13; Eph 4:22; Jam 1:21) — it is only by being “spiritually minded” (Rom 8:6) that the believer can put to death sinful deeds and live for God. It goes without saying, to not be spiritually minded is to be “carnally minded,” and to be carnally minded is to let the sinful enemy within (your flesh) rule your mind. As the apostle John said, “This is the victory that overcomes the world [and the flesh] — our faith” (1 Jn 5:4), and faith is the result of being spiritually minded. As believers, we need to think deliberately and intentionally according to the Word — that’s faith — and not just dwell on whatever fleshly thoughts fall into our head, because they will flood our minds all day long. The godly person posts a gatekeeper in his mind (2 Cor 10:5; Phil 4:8-9; Ps 39:1; 119:11; 141:3; Prv 2:10-11; 23:7), and he is on the job constantly! It’s important to remember that the mind is basically “neutral,” and will “think” whatever thought you let it think — be it a sinful thought or a righteous thought, a fleshly thought or a spiritual thought. When a fleshly thought first enters our mind it begins as “temptation” — once we become enticed and allured by the thought (whatever it may be), sin is conceived (Jam 1:14-15). The “key” to overcoming sinful thoughts is to immediately turn away from them in the power of the Holy Spirit and think godly thoughts — obviously if a believer is not “walking with Christ” at that moment, there is “distance” in his relationship with Christ — as a result sin will conceive (more on this later). So if a believer does not immediately turn away from a sinful thought, he will sin (even if it is only in thought) — temptation is like a “weed,” it takes very little moisture to make it grow! Obviously, when temptation conceives in the believer’s life, he then needs to immediately avail himself of the “grace of confession.” Following is a reminder of the “activities of your sinful flesh” —
Remember, your flesh is proud, sensual, idolatrous, selfish, impatient & uncompromising!
Your flesh responds negatively to criticism, rejection, suffering, trials & problems!
Your flesh is “feeling oriented” — it wants and craves and lusts and desires!
Your flesh does not accept the spiritual realities & truths of Scripture!
Your flesh refuses to submit to God and obey His commandments!
Your flesh loves the esteem and approval of other people!
Your flesh wants you to embrace worldly values!
Your flesh is easily agitated & disgruntled!
Your flesh lies to you constantly!
Your flesh is of the devil!
Paul says we must “set our minds” on those things that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent, and worthy of praise… and if we “practice doing so” we will experience the peace of God (Phil 4:8-9). Victorious living is a matter of “intentionally” lining up our thoughts with God’s Word — “right living comes from right thinking” — if a person’s thought-life is pure, his life will be pure… if a person’s thought-life is fleshly, his life will be impure, confirming the maxim “garbage in, garbage out.” We have all often heard it said, “practice makes perfect” — though spiritual perfection is not possible in the Christian life, spiritual maturity (teleios) is possible (Jam 1:4). However, without “practicing right thinking” we will never become spiritually mature or learn to put to death the deeds of the flesh. As the theologian William MacDonald says in his commentary on the Bible, the three keys to aligning one’s life with the will of God are: a separated life… a yielded body… and a trans-formed mind (Mac, p. 1729); and it all begins with the mind. Practicing right thinking leads to maturity! Paul reminds us that “we are transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:2), so we must learn to think the way God thinks as revealed in His Word — by taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor 10:5). Believers often respond, “But that’s not possible!” And in an absolute sense that is correct (because of indwelling sin)… nevertheless, that is the goal of the Christian life — the idea being, every thought that enters our mind needs to be carefully considered — does it edify? and honor Christ? (Phil 4:8-9) — that is the test… or do we just dwell on anything that happens to fall into our minds? Just as it is not possible to bat 1.000 in baseball (because of our mental and physical imperfections), neither is it possible to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (because of our stubborn flesh and the weakness of our faith) — nevertheless, perfection is still the goal whether it be baseball or the Christian life! (Mt 5:48). Remember, as believers inhabiting sinful flesh we are “ever” at the mercy of God in this life; the good news is God’s mercy endures forever! (Heb 4:15-16).
Since absolute perfection is not attainable in the Christian life, obviously there is the need to “grow;” hence we are exhorted in Scripture to “grow as believers!” (2 Pet 3:18; 1 Pet 2:2), and “press on toward the goal” (Phil 3:13-14) — and that means a life-time of “spiritual warfare!” The long and short of it is this: when we “vigorously fight the fight of faith” we grow spirit-ually, and God uses all of the struggles and suffering we go through to develop and mold our Christian character… that He might prepare us to reign with Him in His eternal kingdom… one day God by His divine omnipotence is going to completely perfect, strengthen and establish us (cf. 1 Pet 5:10; Rom 8:29-30; Phil 1:6; 2 Tim 2:12; Rev 3:21). Regarding our responsibility as believers to “grow in Christ,” it is important to remember “we can’t plant weeds and grow flowers” and “we can’t sow vice and reap virtue” — they both require deliberate, intentional action that corresponds with the desired objective. The “sluggard” teaches us that when we don’t expend the energy that is necessary to do what needs to be done, we experience poverty (Prv 6:9-11; Jam 4:6). It’s the law of “cause & effect” — all effects are the result of specific causes. When we put forth the energy to walk in the light and say no to the flesh, the Holy Spirit will cause our efforts to be efficacious… and when we put forth the energy to prayerfully and carefully wrestle with the truths of Scripture and meditate upon them, the Holy Spirit will give us the grace to understand and accept them (Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:13; Acts 16:14; 1 Jn 2:20, 27) — spiritual growth is predicated upon “our complying” with the expressed will of God; when we do our part and depend upon God to do His part, He will do His part! (1 Th 5:24). Remember the words of Paul: “I planted, but GOD caused the growth” (1 Cor 3:6). GOD is the one who ultimately produces the fruit in our lives (Jn 15:5). It should be noted, God’s laws don’t just work irrespec-tive of His involvement… they work because of Him! God is the “power” behind His laws! I find it interesting that man insists on putting God on the “sideline” and relegating Him to irrelevant status, as though He is not an “active player” in the game… as if what we see and experience in life is completely disassociated from Him personally — my friend, make no mistake about it, GOD is the supreme, preeminent player in all things! (cf. Prv 16:1, 9; Is 14:24; 46:9-10; Eph 1:11).
8. God permits trials and problems and difficulties and affliction to come into our lives to “remove the dross from our faith”… to keep us mindful of the fact that “our flesh is sinful to the core,” that we are always in “need of His mercy,” and that there is still a “significant amount of work to be done in our souls.” From the believer’s perspective, the life of faith is all about “believing and affirming and obeying the truth,” “saying no to sin” (dying to self and the flesh), and “saying yes to Christ and righteousness.” Because our sinful flesh “demands its way,” and refuses to submit itself to God, “dying to self” is a difficult task — after all, we were weaned on the flesh, and we have had a life time of operating by the flesh. One of the primary tenets of the flesh is the belief that “happiness is only experienced when our lives are pain-free and trouble-free”… sadly, most of us live by that precept, because we are all “addicted to personal happiness” (particularly here in the West). As such we are ever at work minimizing everything that frustrates & aggravates us! the very things God uses to build our faith! Note the paradox — we work at ridding ourselves of problems because they frustrate us, and God keeps pouring problems into our lives to build our faith! The problem that most believers have is that they are not concentrating on their “their faith” at that point; instead they are just trying to alleviate the problem so they will no longer be “frustrated and unhappy!” The “natural response” to nearly every situation in life is to first listen to what the flesh has to say about it, because it tends to be on the “front burner” of our life (“it is always in the room” so-to-speak)… and it stubbornly persists in presenting its case. Some believers don’t think they have a sin problem, and that “their flesh is not on the front burner in their life;” the truth is, we can’t be housed in sinful flesh and not be significantly affected by it — that is not only what the apostle Paul preached, but many of the “greatest saints” in history as well — either there is a lot of “warfare” in our life… or a lot of “succumbing” to the flesh!
Temptation almost always starts as “a very subtle voice in the back of our mind,” and if it is allowed to germinate, it results in sin (Jam 1:14-15). At the earliest moment of recognition we must apply sudden death to it, or it will plant its deadly seed within us. Dr. Caroline Leaf, one of the world’s leading authorities on the “cognitive neuroscientific aspects of the brain,” has studied the brain and the “science of thought” for more than 30 years. She is a devout Christian with a PhD in “Communication Pathology” from the University of Pretoria in South Africa. Dr. Leaf says the average person thinks over 30,000 thoughts a day (our minds never rest while we are awake!). Think about that number with the understanding that many of our thoughts are fleshly and evil in origin, and such thoughts can be extremely stubborn and difficult to overcome once they are rooted. Dr. Leaf says that 87-95% of all the illnesses we experience are a direct result of our “toxic thoughts,” and by not controlling our thoughts, we create the conditions for nearly all physical and emotional illness; therefore it is important for us to exercise extreme care with regard to what stimuli we allow to enter into our thought processes. Dr. Leaf’s message to both Christian and secular audiences is that we detox our brains by consciously controlling our thought lives — and this means engaging interactively with every single thought we have, and analyzing it before we decide to accept it or reject it. Her message parallels that of the apostle Paul: “Bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Leaf states the following in her book “Who Switched Off My Brain?” — “Our mind will either be our best friend or our worst enemy… it all depends on how we choose to use it.”
If you are insistent upon finding a little “spiritual acre of utopia” somewhere on this planet where there are no problems or frustrations, listen up — there’s no such thing as a comfortable little life on a hill with green grass and a white picket fence… where weeds never grow, the grass never needs cutting, and the fence never needs fixing or painting. If this is your little spiritual dream… wake up and smell the roses (by the way, roses have thorns! — think about that). Regarding the flesh, try though as we may to shut our ears to it, it frequently gets its case fully presented in the court of our mind, resulting in a measure of sin at least on the thought level (Jam 1:14-15), and at that point guilt and discouragement then do their damage; ultimately, the pain of guilt (heaviness in the soul) then causes us to confess our sin to the Lord — He then picks us up… and dusts us off (cleanses us)… and gets us back up on our feet again (spiritually). This little cycle happens over and over again in a believer’s life every day — so much for an “other-worldly euphoria.” By the way, if you insist on having a pleasant, trouble-free life, you will increasingly become disillusioned with life, because your troubles will intensify until you redirect your focus — we are called to have a “God focus” in life, not a “self focus.” As believers, we simply need to accept reality for what it is (God-ordained), and diligently strive by the power of the Spirit to walk with Christ in the center of His will.
James writes, “Consider it all joy when we encounter trials, knowing that the testing of our faith produces endurance” (Jam 1:2-3). That’s right, we are to consider it “joy” when trials and temptation enter our life, yet that is not our “immediate response” to them; instead it is almost always “some level of anguish.” James emphasizes “faith” and the impact that “trials” have on it — trials are designed by God to “produce Christ-like character in us”… but that only occurs when we respond with “faith” (as opposed to the “flesh” — worry). As George Muller (1805-1898), one of the leaders of the Christian Brethren movement in England, said: “The beginning of worry is the end of faith” (because worry/anxiety is antithetical to faith). There-fore it is essential that we learn to “immediately take up the weapons of faith and fight when we are being tried and tempted,” and that means “immediately and intentionally affirming spiritual truth in our minds.” There are several possible attitudes we can take when we are faced with trials — we can become defiant and rebel against them, grumble and complain about them, indulge in self pity, boast of our ability to handle them, lose heart and give up under their pressure, or recognize that the trials are permitted by God for the purpose of “developing Christian character in us.” One thing is certain: every believer’s life ultimately is going to be filled with problems by design (not by accident – Jn 16:33), and we can either respond negatively to them or positively to them. My understanding is that older believers suffer far more intense trials than younger believers do. Further-more, if a person is transfixed on having a “pleasant, problem-free life,” he is going to end up responding in negative fashion to trials (regardless of their redeeming value), because he simply can’t get past the negativity of them. By necessity, producing Christ-like character involves suffering, frustration and perplexity — the fruit of the Spirit cannot be produced in our lives only with warm sunshine; there must also be cold, wind, rain, and dark clouds! And trials never seem pleasant (they are always painful, difficult and disagreeable), yet if they are handled properly, “they yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb 12:11).
When we “consciously walk with Christ in life,” we will not only see the importance of trials when they come into our life, but we will see the need to “respond in faith” so that we might gain from them (Jn 15:5; Gal 5:17-23)… on the other hand, should we not be consciously walking with Christ, the trials will simply be a very frustrating agitation to us. Let me expand on that point — let’s compare “walking with Christ” to an electrical [spiritual] outlet to which your heart is “plugged in”… and not walking with Christ to being “unplugged” — if we are not consciously walking with Christ when trials and temptation come, you can’t just “instantly get plugged back in to Him” and come through the trial victoriously without any damage, so-to-speak, as if Christ is simply some dynamic source of spiritual energy that is available to us whenever circumstances dictate. The question that begs asking is this: “Why weren’t you walking with Christ in the first place?” So when trials and temptation comes to those who are “walking with Christ,” they immediately interact with the Him regarding their situation… whereas those who are “not walking with Christ,” they become agitated when temptation and trials come, because their focus is on simply having a pleasant, trouble-free life (due to the dominance of their flesh)… and rather than drawing closer to Christ, they actually end up distancing themselves from Him, because He doesn’t “bail them out of their trouble.” So as believers, “we must continually be preoccupied with the bigger picture in life” (God and His will for our lives) if we are to respond to trials properly… otherwise the connection between “joy and trials” will simply be a perplexing incongruity to us. The foregoing is critical for the believer to understand — it contrasts two mindsets: one that is just focused on enjoying life (which sadly is common for most believers — even those in ministry)… and the other that is focused on Christ and what He is doing in one’s life; and this is determined by that with which we are preoccupied: Christ or self? (cf. Mt 16:24-25; 10:38; Lk 14:26-35). Beloved, the Christian life is not just about having “God’s calling card in our wallet” so that we can get in touch with Him the moment some pressing need arises… it is about “walking with Christ moment by moment through life and submitting to His holy purposes for our life”… admittedly that’s not easy, because it requires “dying to self and our own desires” (Mt 16:24-25)… and saying “no” to self, and dying to self is never easy.
I don’t want to come across in this study as one who has “conquered spirituality” — I am always fearful that someone might draw that conclusion; the truth is, no one ever has come close conquering it! (let alone me). Don’t confuse outward piety with inward purity — no man possesses absolute purity (Mk 10:18; Rom 7:18). My desire in this study is to simply help shed light on those “spiritual realities” that have perplexed believers down through the ages, that they might be delivered from the bondage of their flesh, and be set free to “live the faith-life” that God has called them to live (Rom 1:17). Jesus taught us that “truth sets us free,” so when we co-mingle “truth” with “untruth,” it is important to know that we will not experience that freedom; and that’s what happens when we mix fleshly thinking with the truths of Scripture. Though we may not intentionally co-mingle the two, we all ignorantly do it at times — Satan and the flesh plant ideas in our minds that seem to be true to us, but they are not. An example would be “the extent of God’s love and grace” — the flesh and Satan always place a “limit” on it, causing all of us to struggle at times accepting the fact that it is “unconditional”… after all, we reason, “How can God just keep extending His love and grace to us over and over again, without any conditions? that’s not reasonable!” Truths that are “eternal or everlasting” are difficult for us to understand and accept, because we are not eternal creatures — we are “temporal beings;” thus, we’re like second graders trying to understand some postgraduate study on metaphysics; it is beyond us! The reality is, eternal truths must be accepted by faith… the problem is, our flesh demands that every precept of faith coincide with human reason and be fully understood — hence, the struggle to believe. By the way, to not believe God about a particular matter is sin (Rom 14:23); so doubting His love is sin — Why? Because it means “we don’t believe Him,” and “unbelief doesn’t please Him” (Heb 11:6). The truth is, there are numerous issues that we “misconstrue” in the heat of battle… and as result we fail to experience God’s peace or liberation in our soul. It is not as though we intentionally misconstrue things — in the moment we often fail to correctly or fully understand some issue, and it is then that we let human logic trump divine truth (oftentimes unknowingly), and we stumble. Since God’s call upon our lives is to “embrace the truth,” we must be committed to a life of continually growing in grace and faith (i.e., the Word – Ps 19:7-14; 2 Pet 3:18).
The truth is, every believer wants to walk with God and walk uprightly (Rom 7:14-20) — that’s simply what it means to be a believer — but “the lies of hell in his soul” (the flesh / untruth) oftentimes keep him bewildered and defeated. It is because his faith is “weak” that he fails. The apostle Peter didn’t want to sink when he was walking on the water, but his “weak faith” was simply not sufficient to keep him on his feet (he became frightened – Mt 14:31); it was only after years of wrestling with “the truth” that he no doubt became “more mature in his faith,” though he never attained perfection. The majority of our sins are “deliberate in nature” (we get angry, etc.), but some of our sins are not (feelings of insecurity, etc.) — they are simply the result of “our inherent weaknesses and an immature faith.” To “abide in the truth” one must “know the truth,” and that only happens by being a student of the Word and wrestling with the truth through the ups and downs of life — this wrestling is a war in the soul between truth and untruth (between the Spirit and the flesh). In order to “experience liberation and peace in the soul” (Jn 8:32; 15:4-11; 2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:16-24), there must be an abundance of truth ruling within (that’s faith)… since none of us fully conquer the flesh in an absolute sense (Phil 3:13; Jam 3:2), however, we only experience degrees of liberation and peace — therefore, to the degree that we abide in “unadulterated truth,” to that degree do we experience a corresponding level of liberation and peace. Keep in mind God is ever mindful of our weaknesses and inadequacies (Heb 4:15), and our inability to be perfect — if He was demanding absolute perfection, none of us would experience an ounce of peace. My experience is this — God bestows the graces of liberation and peace upon us according to our stage of spiritual growth, and that unique calling and transforming work that He is doing in our lives… keep in mind, none of us have the same calling in life (contrast Abraham with Paul, or Job with Mary), so we can’t compare ourselves with others because we are each extremely unique. Let me be very clear here: “I am not watering down the believer’s responsibility so that he can live more recklessly” — not in the least — the truth is, when we impose impossible standards on believers that don’t clearly reflect the totality of what Scripture teaches, we can easily make God out to be an insensitive, unsympathizing, rigid despot (and that does not define the God we worship!). He is a loving, merciful God who fully understands our infirmities and our humanness, and is committed to our eternal good. Whatever our lot in life may be, it is important that we keep our focus on GOD ALONE, and not on others or our pitifully weak faith (such will only discourage us spiritually) — the humble truth is, we all have “considerable room to grow with regard to our faith” (and always will)… learning to “walk by faith” is the life-long journey to which each of us has been called, and perfection is altogether out of the question, because it completely ignores our inherent weaknesses (Heb 4:15). Obviously a “significant tension” exists between “our performance” and ”perfection,” yet God graciously and mercifully accepts our deficient and imperfect offerings (Rom 12:1). This is a major hurdle that every believer must overcome. That is not to say that there are not times in our lives when we “perseveringly claim God’s promises” in an hour of darkness, and hang on for dear life, and then experience God’s gracious provision of peace in our soul (Phil 4:6-7).
What makes some of this even more difficult to reconcile is the fact that we all have “unique personalities” and “different temperaments” — some of us are more extroverted, others more introverted… some are more phlegmatic or melancholy, while others are more choleric or sanguine. The truth is, there is no such thing as the stereotypical personality. Furthermore, none of us had the same upbringing or experienced the same things in life: some of us had a painful childhood, others did not… some of us experienced significant rejection when we were children, others did not (can’t help but wonder what kind of a “spiritual impact” that has on people)… some of us were popular, others were not… some of us were athletic, others were not… some of us had a “high IQ,” others did not… some of us were unusually gifted, others were not… some of us were physically attractive, others were not. As you can see, there are a truckload of variables that went in to making us the individuals we are today — precisely what the impact upon us was of everything we experienced, only God knows… but of this we can be sure, “GOD DOES KNOW,” and in His sovereign plan for each of us, He has a reason for every single thing that we ultimately went through in life. So whether you possess “few gifts” or “many gifts,” that was determined by God in eternity past (Is 45:9; 64:8), and regardless of what you were given, you are to “be grateful for it” and “make the most of it.” The sober reality is this: “You will be held accountable for everything God has entrusted to you” (Mt 25:14-30) — “to the one who has been given much shall much be required” (Lk 12:48); conversely, to the one who has not been given much, he shall be judged by what he was given. We are all “stewards” of everything we have, and “it is required of a steward that he be found trustworthy and faithful” (1 Cor 4:2). First and foremost, we are to “seek God’s kingdom and His righteousness” (Mt 6:31-33; Lk 12:31-34, 37-48), so whether you are a big oak tree or a tiny little flower, “bloom where you are planted and make the most of your life!” Yes, it is as difficult for the “least gifted person” as it is for the “most gifted person” — so don’t compare or grumble about your calling in life… simply be grateful for who God made you and what He has given to you, and be grateful for the opportunity to serve Him with it! Jesus reminds us that “many who are first shall be last, and many who are last shall be first” (cf. Mt 19:30; Lk 13:30) — obviously “eternity” needs to be at the forefront in all of our thinking.
9. So what happens to us as believers when we sin? As previously stated, we ultimately “turn to Christ” when we sin and ask for His forgiveness. The reason we do so is two-fold the in dwelling presence of the“Holy Spirit,” and the “new heart” that God gave to us when we were saved. As believers,weare now new creations inChrist with a heart to“follow Him” that is simply what it means to be a Christian. Remember, we didn’t give ourselves a new heart,God gave us a new heart. So we confess our sins as a result of the “newself” (with a new heart) and the“Holy Spirit”—the“old self”(that diabolical wretch that we were prior to being saved),wants absolutely “nothing” to do with the life of Christ. That“inward voice” that constantly argues against Christ? that’s“your flesh,” not you! Your flesh has no regard whatsoever for the rule of God in your life— it is antithetical to everything God values—it loves darkness and hates light, and loves Satan and hates God. If for some reason you think there is really a “reasonable amount of good in you” (that is,in your flesh), or that there should be some inherent good- ness in you, you have been misled and deceived—regrettably, that is common thinking for many in the Christian world today.
One of the keys to walking with God (living the God-life), is to humbly acknowledge one’s condition (there is nothing good in you), and accept it for what it is — to not accept it is to insist on living in a “world of unreality;” thus remaining spiritually defeated, frustrated and depressed. Remember, “truth sets a person free” (Jn 8:32, 36; Gal 5:1, 13), and “error keeps him in bondage,” so once you truly accept your condition, you will no longer “pretend” to be someone you are not. By the way, it may take you a while to accept your condition, even though the Holy Spirit is continually at work in you convincing you of “the bankruptcy of your flesh” (thru your many failures), but once you do accept it, you will discover that you no longer have to “live a performance-based life of trying to prove you’re goodness to God, of which you have none” (Rom 7:18), or trying to prove your goodness to yourself or to others… and that is extremely liberating. Performance-based living, my friend, is a miserable way to live — why? because your performance never measures up, and to fail continually is very frustrating and debilitating, and that is the essence of performance-based living. The lyrics of a popular old song gives a pretty good definition of what it means to live a performance-based life — “There’s trouble in River City!” (nothing but trouble!).
It is important for the believer to understand that it is “his flesh” that tempts him…that he does not tempt himself. The flesh is an extremely active evil force in our lives; it never takes a day off… it never stops tempting us… and it is at work in our lives every waking moment (much to our consternation). Many believers are “super-frustrated” with the internal conflict they experience, because they think temptation is an intrinsic part of who they really are (that they are actually the cause of it)… and they are so tired of being tempted (or tempting themselves) that they simply view themselves as “spiritual failures.” When we think temptation is self-induced (that we are tempting ourselves), we “feel guilty” the moment temptation surfaces, but temptation and sin are two different things (remember, Jesus was tempted and did not sin). Here is the dilemma with which most believers wrestle: they are “believers in Christ” who truly want to walk in righteousness (which is the norm), yet they are constantly overwhelmed by their inherent sinfulness. What they fail to do is “differentiate themselves from their flesh” (that which is inherently evil); however, their flesh is not who they are… but because they think it is, they are constantly frustrated, overwhelmed and defeated. And like the apostle Paul, they cry out — “Wretched man that I am, who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom 7:24)… but unlike the apostle Paul, they don’t understand the reality of their condition, that they are now a new creation in Christ, and that their flesh is truly not them! but because they think it is them, they are continually disappointed with themselves, worn out spiritually, and riddled with guilt. That my friend is a perplexing condition that haunts many believers — they simply fail to understand who they now are, and have not embraced the “liberating truth” that God delivered them from the “bondage of their flesh” at the cross! It was crucified with Christ… and it is no longer the essence of who they really are. It is now simply an “alien evil force” that resides in them, and is trying to subdue them! By believing the truth about oneself, that the “new you” is now a righteous child of God, and that the “old you” is now dead (as far as it being the living reality of who you now really are)… as a believer you will no longer find yourself constantly overwhelmed by its presence or by the debilitating feelings of guilt and shame; and as such, you will have the spiritual energy to “stand and fight!” when the enemy attacks, rather than “run and hide!” Those are two radically different positions!
Let’s return again to Paul’s testimony — after concluding that there is a “contrary principle” (i.e., a disposition to sin) at work in his life, striving against his “new nature,” and making him captive to “indwelling sin” (Rom 7:23)… Paul lets out his famous eloquent cry: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me FREE from the body of this death?” (Rom 7:24). Paul feels as if he has a decomposing body strapped to him, which is his “old nature” in all its corruption — he clearly identifies the cause of his torment as “the body of this death” (it is only the body of the believer that remains subject to sin and death). It is not as though Paul’s salvation was imperfect, but as long as he remained in his mortal body, his old unredeemed humanness (his flesh) made him subject to temptation and sin. Paul longed for the day when he would be set free from “the body of this death” (sin’s presence within), just as the psalmist did in Psalm 130. Without hesi-tation, the apostle testifies to the certainty of his eventual rescue and gives thanks to his Lord even before experiencing it — He bursts out in thanksgiving to God that Jesus Christ is his deliverer! (Rom 7:25) that the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set him free from the law of sin and death! (Rom 8:2) that Jesus Christ is the One who will ultimately redeem his perishable body and make it immortal and imperishable! (Rom 8:23; 1 Cor 15:52-53) that because of Christ he is no longer the wretched man of sin! (Rom 7:25) and that because of Christ he will never be condemned because of sin! (Rom 8:1, 3). So Paul here breaks forth in jubilant praise to God that there is victory over the flesh through Jesus Christ! Without knowing all of the foregoing, the believer would naturally remain distraught because of his sinfulness. Since Paul’s primary emphasis in this passage is on the conflict with sin that torments every spiritually sensitive child of God, and not on the believer’s eventual deliver-ance from sin’s presence, he goes on to expand upon the resolution to the conflict within that he is presently experiencing. Because of the work of Christ and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, the believer is now free to serve the law of God with his “new nature” (no longer is he destined to live a life of servitude to his flesh!), in spite of the fact that his “old nature” (the flesh) is sold out to the law of sin (Rom 7:25; 8:2, 5-8; Heb 11:6). Thus Paul makes it very clear that victory over the flesh in this life is through the cross of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit… not through his own efforts (Rom 8:2-4).
Due to the fact that most believers don’t adequately understand “their freedom in Christ,” let’s take a deeper look at this subject. In Romans chapter 7, Paul clearly teaches us that all Christians “struggle with sin,” and then in chapter 8 he goes on to tell us that all believers have been “set free from the law of sin and death” (8:2); i.e., every believer has been set free from both the “penalty of sin” (Rom 6:23; 8:3; 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 2:24) and the “power of sin” (Rom 6:2, 11, 14, 18; 8:2; 1 Cor 15:56) — thus we will never be punished for our sins (Jesus bore our punish-ment in full), and we will never again be enslaved to sin (though sin was our master prior to salvation, Christ is now our master). The verb “set free” (Rom 8:2) is in the aorist tense in Greek, meaning it is a completed action in the past (so it does not refer to some future deliverance)… furthermore, Paul tells us that this action is not only effectuated in us by the Holy Spirit, but that it is a “certain reality” (it is a “fact”) as the indicative mood in Greek clearly teaches. The question most believers ask is this — “Does being set free from the penalty and power of sin mean we will never sin?” No, the issue here is that we are no longer constrained to sin — though we can sin, and do sin, we don’t have to sin! Keep in mind, “that which is not of faith is sin” (Rom 14:23), so anytime God is not the prime consideration in our life, we sin — that is why the “self-life” is nothing but a life of sin… even though one may not commit overt acts of evil, the self-life is a completely sinful life. Hence by definition, the unbeliever lives in a constant state of sin, because of the complete absence of God in his life; essentially, he has no regard whatsoever for God’s will in his life — God is not the supreme player in his life. By way of contrast, the believer has been “SET FREE” in Christ; therefore, he is no longer in bondage to sin (i.e., he no longer has to sin) — the prison gates of sin have been destroyed and the chains that bound him have been demolished, thus he has been set free! (Is 61:1; Lk 4:18; Rom 6:7, 18, 20; 7:3; 8:2). When Jesus used the word “free” (Jn 8:32; 2 Cor 3:17), He employed a term that means “liberation from bondage;” yet the majority of believers continue to live in bon-dage because they do not understand the incredible “FREEDOM” they possess in Christ.
Seminary professor, author, and “Key Life Ministry” radio host, Steve Brown, states the following in his book “A Scandalous Freedom” — “If our freedom doesn’t include the freedom to not obey, then it is not real freedom” (Howard Publishing Co., 2004, pp. 9-17); by the way, that essentially is the argument Paul used in his letter to the Galatians — “You were called to freedom, but do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal 5:13; cf. 1 Cor 9:19; Gal 5:1; 1 Pet 2:16). Obviously Paul didn’t want the Galatian believers to choose sin, but he knew they could… because they were FREE! The truth is, as believers in Christ we are really and completely and truly FREE! We can choose to obey God or disobey God; we can choose to be faithful to Him or unfaithful to Him! because we are really FREE! The unequivocal truth is this — no matter what we do God will continue to love us unconditionally! That is a truth you must take to the bank! God’s love for us is an “everlasting love!” (read Ps 100:5; 107:1; 118: 1; 136:1-26; Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 4:7-8), and that my friend is the wonder of God’s love! and why we are “eternally secure!” (no matter how badly we may mess things up). To not believe we are eternally secure in God’s love is to insist that our salvation rests upon “our complying with God’s law;” thus making “our performance” the ultimate determinant of our eternal destiny. Beloved, if our eternal destiny depends upon you and me, none of us will get there! So the believer naturally asks, “Does that mean God is pleased with us regardless of the choices we make?” No, not at all; nevertheless “we are completely free in Christ to choose whatever we want!” Listen carefully: if we are unfaithful (and we all are frequently), God remains faithful (read 2 Tim 2:13); He will never withdraw His blessing from us or turn His back on us (obviously that runs contrary to the way human love works). The truth is, God loves us without reserva-tion! That is simply how inscrutable His love is! We are FREE! We are FREE to not only choose to live for ourselves, but we are FREE to choose Jesus… FREE to serve Jesus… and FREE to love Jesus — we are not forced to do so!!! we do not have to do so!!! (read Job 1:8-9; 2: 5). The truth is, it is God’s unconditional love for us that motivates us to love Him in return! (Rom 2:4; 1 Jn 4:19) — since it is natural for us to respond positively to those who love us, and respond negatively to those who hurt us and injure us, as believers we need to discover how much God loves us, and that will motivate us to grow in our love for Him! (cf. Jn 14:15). As internationally renowned author Henri J. M. Nouwen said his book A Spirituality of Living — “Real freedom to live in this world comes from hearing clearly the truth about who we are… [beloved of God].” He goes on to say that “it is an incredible mystery of God’s love that the more we know how deeply we are loved, the more we will [love].” Re-read this paragraph to make sure you have grasped this liberating truth (Jn 8:32).
If you want to know what God’s love looks like, carefully read First Corinthians 13:4-8, and apply every one of those characteristics to Him — in short, God is patient, kind, doesn’t act unbecomingly, is not provoked, doesn’t take into account a wrong suffered, doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, rejoices with the truth, bears all things, believers all things, endures all things, and His love never fails — and that’s a pretty wonderful description of the heart of God! Because God’s love is so powerful, when we experience it, it changes us (by the Holy Spirit!). The truth is, the reason you and I are believers today is that God loved us to Himself! (Jn 3:16; Rom 2:4). By the way, God continues to lovingly and actively do a transforming work in our lives today! (Phil 2:13; 1 Cor 15:10; Eph 1:5; Heb 13:21). Since God loves us with an everlasting love, He is going to ultimately transform us into the image of His Son (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18) — obviously He has got a lot of work to do in us! and that means “growing in the grace and the knowledge of Christ” (2 Pet 3:18). The reality is, we are children of God enrolled in “His school of life,” and our teacher is the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:16, 17, 26; 1 Cor 2:12; 1 Jn 2:27) — each of us continue to grow slowly in our faith and our love for Christ… we all started in grade one, and each of us will progress in our spiritual education all the way to graduate school (when we arrive at our eternal destiny!). God trains & disciplines & chastens & educates & corrects us twenty-four/ seven as needed (read Heb 12:5-11). The Greek term “paideuo” refers to “the training of children, emphasizing the broad idea of education” (cf. Acts 7:22; 22:3; 2 Tim 2:25; Titus 2:12; Rev 3:19). Though God’s training can be challenging, painful and difficult at times, afterwards “it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb 12:11). If you are really struggling with the concept of “freedom in Christ,” get a copy of Steve Brown’s book, “A Scandalous Freedom” — he’s an 80 year old professor whom God has given a wonderful ability to speak right to the believer’s heart without pretense; in short, he tells it like it is! You can also check out his website at: www.keylife.org
Christianity is all about “learning to live a life of faith with GOD / CHRIST,” by walking and talking with Him moment by moment through all the ups and downs of life — it is not about “trying to perfectly comply with DIVINE LAW” (cf. Rom 8:12, 15; Gal 2:19; 3:3, 10-13; 4:9; 5:1)… thus it is about enjoying the friendship of someone who loves you (and is raising you like a child), and is ever at work transforming you into His likeness… rather than trying to appease some stern, rigid deity by obeying His laws (which is not even possible because of our humanness). The most important thing we as believers can do is realize that God, because His great love for us, made us His children, in spite of the fact that we were children of the devil! God bought each of us out of the marketplace of sin with the blood of His own Son, and when we accepted Christ’s atoning work on the cross, we essentially entrusted our lives into His care forever (2 Tim 1:12); as such, we are now eternally secure in His love! Though God is perfect in every way, that level of perfection will not be attained by us until we are totally transformed and glorified in the life to come, when we shall be made like Him! (cf. 1 Jn 3:2; Rom 8:23, 29-30; 2 Cor 3:18). Hence, for us to entertain the idea of being perfect in this life is ludicrous — it would be easier for you and me to long jump the Grand Canyon than to attain the smallest degree of perfection in this life… yet many believers are actually trying to live a perfect life, thinking that “that is the essence of the life to which God has called us.” Remember, in the present stage of salvation in which we now live, “we are housed in sinful flesh” — that means “sin abounds within us” — that is simply the reality of our condition. To refuse to admit such is to either be delusional or completely misunderstand the process of salvation. The truth is, walking with Christ & walking according to the law are two completely contrary precepts.
That is why theologians refer to Christianity as a “relationship,” rather than a “religion.” As believers we are walking through life with someone who “loves us” and with whom we have a “personal relationship”… not someone with whom we are estranged, and is recording our every mistake and continually reminding us what a sinful wreck we are! The Christian life is far more about “heart” than “behavior” — more about “being” than “doing” — more about “the person of Christ” rather than some work in which we might be engaged. The Lord is ever aware of the “intent & condition of our hearts” (1 Sam 16:7; Ps 44:21; Jer 17:10; 20:12; Rom 7:14-25; 8:27; Heb 4:12), and it is in the heart where God does His transforming work (Mt 5:8; Eph 1:18; 1 Tim 1:5; Heb 4:12; 10:16, 22; 13:9; 1 Pet 1:22; 3:4). The Christian life essentially is about “the believer’s focus” — what are you focusing on? Christ or something else? Think of it this way, if you were out on a date with someone you really loved, where would your “primary focus” be? — on the person you loved or on everything else around you? If you were more focused on your surroundings (circumstances), then one would have to question your infatuation and love for the person you are dating. When applying this line of reasoning to our relationship with God — if our focus is on something other than Christ (such as our circumstances), then we are living life with a “self-centered focus” rather than a “God-centered focus.” Never forget, “focusing on Christ” requires intentionality… whereas focusing on anything else is simply the natural response of the flesh — so the Christian life is all about “intentionally cultivating intimacy with Christ,” with the understanding that God is ever at work in us lovingly trans-forming us into the image of His Son… and not constantly contending with us because of our sinful humanness! Beloved, you have to get past the “big elephant” in the room — “your ongoing sinfulness” — and start focusing on the One who is doing a transforming work of grace in your soul! Take your eyes off of the problem (you/sin), and fix them on the solution (Jesus)! (Heb 12:2). Let me say it once again — since we “naturally focus on our sinfulness” (because of indwelling sin/flesh), we have to “intentionally redirect our thinking and focus on Christ” (by the power of the Holy Spirit) — and this we do through prayerful dependency upon the Lord and thinking right thoughts (Phil 4:6-9, 11-13); again, it requires “intentionality.”
By the way, God cares far more about “your heart” than “your sinful behavior;” the primary problem we have as believers is that we think God is constantly focusing on “our sinfulness!” (because we are!)… but nothing could be further from the truth — God’s focus is constantly on the incredible transformation that He is doing in our lives (cf. 1 Cor 13:5; Heb 4:15), and the fact that one day we are going to be like Him! Here’s a question for you: “How did you raise your kids?” with a bunch of rules and a lot scolding and punishment? or was “love” the supreme motivation by which you raised them? Remember, “love” is a far greater motivator than is “the threat of punishment.” Therefore, assuming that you raised your children with a lot of “love,” then why would you think that God is some kind of rigid demanding despot? God laid down His life for you when you were still a child of the devil — how much more do you think He loves you now that you are His child? (Rom 5:8; 8:32). It is always helpful for believers to remember the rock from whence they were hewn (Is 51:1) — “we were all fallen creatures” whom the Lord redeemed off the auction block of sin with His own blood. Scripture tells us that “Christ endured the cross because of the joy set before Him!” (Heb 12:2) — it gave Him great joy knowing that He was redeeming us out of the marketplace of sin, and making us holy unto the Lord. God knew exactly what He was getting when He went to the cross for us — children of the devil! (cf. Ps 103:14; Heb 4:15) — so we didn’t end up becoming major disap-pointments to Him! — and God is now patiently, lovingly and slowly transforming us into the likeness of His Son (Phil 1:6; 2:13). By the way, this life-long process won’t culminate until that day when we stand before Him in glory. Why is it a life-long process and not an instantan-eous one? Read my study on “Sin & Man’s Eternal Purpose” (it’s not at all what you think); you can check it out on my website: www.thetransformedsoul.com
Remember, if there was one thing that Jesus was not, it was a Pharisee… so He clearly is not some merciless lawyer who is scrutinizing every thing we do and continually threatening us with some eternal indictment! The truth is, “there is no condemnation for those in Christ” (Rom 8:1); that issue was settled 2,000 yrs ago at the cross! And it is “this issue” that changes everything! Sin is no longer that which alienates us from God! The wonder of wonders is — God loves us with an everlasting love! And His love is so powerful that it transforms the vilest of sinners! He is well aware of all our deficiencies! (take note, they are vastly greater than any of us can even imagine!) He made us His children! He paid the price for every sin we will ever commit! He knows that transforming us into the image of Christ is a lifelong process! And that the vast majority of that work is “His work!” (Rom 8:28; 2 Cor 3:18; Phil 1:6; 2:13; 1 Th 5:24; Ps 138:8). Though our shortcomings are often “humbling and discouraging to us,” incredible as it may seem, God actually uses them for our benefit! So the long and short of it all is this: we need to have a right perspective on things and see them for what they really are… not what Satan would have us think! When we make our relationship with God one of “abiding by the law,” then perfection & performance become our goal in life, rather than enjoying a loving, intimate relationship with God, and that is a “losing proposition” — why? because God never asked us to live that way; furthermore, we couldn’t do it for five minutes, let alone a lifetime! Therefore in summary, we experience the “joy of freedom in Christ” when we “realize” all of the truths presented in these last 4-5 pages! The problem with most Christians is that they are not very “confident” of these truths (Heb 11:1), so they just continue to focus on “their sinfulness and trying to make themselves better” (both of which are discouraging propositions), instead of “their freedom in Christ.” Furthermore, because “sin” has such a stranglehold on their lives, the concept of “freedom in Christ” is as alien to them as a trip to Mars… the arguments of the flesh are simply “too convincing” for them to believe that they have really been “set free in Christ!” What they fail to realize is that such arguments are not grounded in reality (Gal 3:1-3) — they are simply lies from the pit of hell.
The characteristic principle of the Holy Spirit is that of empowering believers for holy living. As we turn over the control of our lives to the Holy Spirit (by faith), we are empowered to love God, love our neighbor, and walk in righteousness. By the way, there is no such thing as hand-ing the keys to your life over to the Holy Spirit and entering into a kind of “spiritual cruise control and coasting through life to the end unimpeded” — sadly, there are many people out there in the world preaching this kind of spurious nonsense (Rom 16:17; 1 Tim 1:3-4, 20; 2 Tim 2:15; 4:3), and many of “God’s sheep” are being injured by their teaching. That’s why James wrote: “Let not many of you be teachers because you are going to incur a stricter judgment” (3:1) — even with that kind of warning, there are still thousands of wayward voices in the Christian world! It’s hard to understand why God permits it, but He does… obviously in His eternal wisdom He has a perfect reason for doing so. It’s when we insist that God operate the way we think He should that we get ourselves into trouble! Let’s return to the topic we’ve been considering: Paul says, “The Spirit’s law of life in Christ Jesus sets us FREE from the law of sin and death!” (Rom 8:2). You’ll notice, Paul calls sin and death a LAW — if you live by that law (the flesh) you will only experience the reper-cussions of it (sin, pain, corruption) — it is a LAW! Conversely, Paul calls life in Christ Jesus a LAW — and if you live by that law (the Spirit) you will experience joy and peace and eternal fruit! (Mt 6:19-21). The GREAT NEWS is, Christ died to set us free from the law of sin and death (both the penalty and the power)… therefore we don’t have to live according to the flesh! Instead, we now have the freedom to live according to the Spirit!
Listen carefully now — those who live according to the Spirit rise above the flesh and live for those things that are eternal… as such, they are occupied with the Word of God, prayer, worship, fellowship, and Christian service (Rom 8:5)… to not be so occupied is to be carnally minded, and give deference to one’s fallen nature (the flesh). By the way, no one is saying that this is “easy!” — nothing could be further from the truth! it’s a “war!” But it is not nearly as debilitating and painful when we know that it is our flesh (not us!) that is the problem! So, to live life according to the Spirit is to be occupied with the things of God, have a conscious awareness of His presence in your life, and consciously depend upon Him throughout the course of a day — that is the “life of faith” to which we are called” (Rom 1:17; 1 Tim 6:12; 1 Jn 5:4). Remember, that is “the believer’s responsibility” in the Christian life (Phil 2:12-13); furthermore, though God gives us the grace to live by faith, we must do the living. As Paul said, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling (i.e., with seriousness of purpose before God), but work with the realization that [you work not alone], God is also at work in you both to will and to do His good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13; also Phil 1:6) — we are responsible to do what God gives us the grace to do. Note carefully: you cannot be “occupied with the things of the flesh” and live a life that honors Christ and experience His peace. That is simply not possible. You should also know that “if you are just sitting back and doing your own thing in life” (even though it is “relatively good” in your mind), you are not being occupied with the things of the Spirit. Re-read this section to make sure you understand it. The big question before each of us is this: With what are you “occupied” in life? Christ or Yourself? There are no other options.
Again, either you are “occupied” with Christ or Yourself! You make that “choice” every day! Yes, living for Christ requires “intentionality” on your part; so first and foremost you must truly desire to walk with Christ in life. If that is really what you want in your heart (but you’re not there yet), go to Him in prayer and ask Him for the grace to desire His moment by moment presence in your life… and then realize that walking with Christ means studying His Word (because it is not possible to follow someone you don’t listen to)… sharing your heart with Him (prayer)… and reflecting upon what He is teaching you (meditation), and God will give you the grace to live for Him. Here’s the reality: if you aren’t into studying His Word, then you really don’t want to walk with Christ — it would be like getting a love letter from someone and not being moved enough to even read it. In short, what you do reflects what you really value in life… you can’t claim to “love someone” and always spend time with someone else; what or who you love is clearly demonstrated in what or who you are most committed to. Listen up seminarians — if you are in training for ministry, find another occupation if God is not your number one passion, because if He is not the preeminent passion in your life now, He won’t be the number one passion the day you get hired by some Christian organization or church — sadly, ministry will end up being number one, not God, and your spiritual impact will be minimal (don’t confuse social impact with spiritual impact). It should be noted, when you choose to make Christ your supreme passion in life, you will do the following things because they will be that important to you, and not because you “feel” like doing them — you will walk in righteousness and live a fruit-bearing life… you will keep “short accounts” with God by confessing your sins often… you will take time to prepare your heart for worship each week… you will become actively involved in a ministry where you do some of the serving… you will bond with other believers in Christ and reach out to them and encourage them in their walk… you will become a student of the Word by inductively studying it every day (by doing word studies, cross referencing, reading commentaries, and taking notes, not just reading it)… you will reflect and meditate upon the most important truths God is teaching you… you will share what God is teaching you with a close brother or sister in Christ (and he/she with you)… and you will pray for each other; remember, when you pray for someone, you will have a spiritual impact upon their life (that’s the essence of intercessory prayer); having close spiritual friends that you can partner with in life is critical for growing spiritually — the truth is, we desperately need other believers in our lives (Jn 13:34: 1 Jn 2:10; 4:7; 1 Cor 12:7); that is simply the way God designed the spiritual economy under which we live (more on this in a moment). One further thought — it is “your flesh” that insists on you being a “lone ranger Christian.”
By emphasizing “strong community” in the body of Christ (a minimum of 2-3 times a week), God will minister a measure of grace “to you” (thru others) and a measure of grace “to others” (thru you) (Jn 13:34-35; 15:8; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor 3:13; 12:7; Eph 4:11-16; Titus 3:8; Heb 3:13; 10:24-25); that’s the way God designed the economy by which the body of Christ functions and operates in this world. Remember, God has taken up residence in our lives, and is working in and through each of us — the same Holy Spirit who is “in you,” is also in “your friend!” A significant part of what God does in our lives happens through other believers! Let’s use the analogy of the sports world at this point — if you are really committed to becoming a “good ball player,” you are going to do whatever you need to do to become one; and obviously that means spending time doing things related to your growth as a ballplayer (training, conditioning, practicing), and not simply doing things that you always feel like doing (like going golfing, skiing, surf-ing, shopping or boating). Well to become a committed believer, you are going to need to become a student of the Word where you study it diligently (not just read it), and become consistently involved in a few ministries of your church, and steadfastly work at developing some strong relationships with other believers. These are the foundation stones you need to lay, if you want to experience God’s transforming work in your life (1 Cor 3:6; Phil 2:12-13). If the Christian life is simply an “avocation” to you, you will never develop the spiritual maturity needed to walk uprightly through all the ups and downs of life; by the way, if you are arguing with this in your mind, it’s “your flesh” that is doing the arguing!
Though some people have a hard time establishing “strong interpersonal relationships,” they can generally be developed fairly easily in most “small group settings” where people gather weekly, and where “spiritual interaction between individuals” is one of the main thrusts of that ministry. It is important to stress that “close relational connections” can take time to develop and should not be forced; so one should not be overly aggressive in trying to establish one — prayerfully let God bring it about through your group interactions. The con-cept of “body-life” is central to the operational structure of the body of Christ (God made us relational beings), so it is in this context that we fulfill God’s purpose for our lives (both in relating to Him and to others). The great commandment is that we “love God & love others” (Mt 22:37-40) — thus strongly emphasizing the “preeminence of relationship.” God designed the body of Christ to operate in such a way that “close communion between believers” char-acterizes His body (Jn 13:34)… thus “lone ranger believers” forfeit this Spirit-empowered channel of grace. It is only by humbly participating in “body-life” that God pours out extra measures of grace into our lives (1 Cor 12:7; Gal 5:13; Heb 10:24-25; 1 Jn 4:7; Jam 4:6). Slowly going through a study (like this one) in a small group setting would provide believers with a wonderful opportunity to “spontaneously interact with each other on soul transforming issues.” Remember, it is not essential that we understand everything about the wisdom of God’s design; we simply need to submit to it and benefit by it… the truth is, demanding to understand everything can sometimes be an impediment rather than an advantage — wisdom oftentimes follows humble obedience.
10. Now, with all that has been stated to this point, it is important to remember that “God does all things after the counsel of His own will… to the praise of His glory” (Eph 1:11, 14). There-fore, since God is GOD — that is, since God is the only infinite eternal reality, the creator of all things, and the only Sovereign in all the universe (1 Tim 6:15) — “nothing exists” that was not a part of His plan from the very beginning (eternity past), and that includes “sin.” Though God “is not the author or cause of sin” (1 Jn 1:5; 1 Tim 1:16; Jam 1:13, 17), obviously He permitted it or it would not exist. That is simply what it means to be GOD. God gave His creatures the “freedom” to obey or disobey Him, rather than simply have them respond according to how they are programmed. Scripture tells us that all things exist by God and for God (Rom 11:36; Col 1:16; Heb 2:10), that God planned the end from the beginning (Is 46:10), and that the central part of His plan was “the death of Christ” (for sin) — “He was slain from the foundation of the world” (Mt 13:35; 25:34; Eph 1:4; Heb 4:3; Rev 13:8). Therefore sin, Satan and the cross were all integral parts of His glorious plan from all eternity. I have written a study on this called “Sin and Man’s Eternal Purpose” — again, it is not what you expect. See my website: www.thetransformedsoul.com
To somehow think that God simply “wound up the universe on day one,” and just sat back to watch and see what would happen (that’s deism), is to not only reject the clear teaching of Scripture, but to deny GOD the very use of His eternal attributes — since He is eternal, He transcends time; meaning there is no past, present or future with God (eternity is now with God)… since He is omniscient, He knows the end from the beginning (as such, there are no mysteries with God)… and since He is omnipotent, there is nothing God can’t do; He accom-plishes His good pleasure (Is 46:9-11). So for God to “close His eyes to the reality of what might happen” (which is not possible, any more than you are unconscious right now about what you are thinking), would be to “handcuff Himself” to satisfy the minds of some of His creatures, simply because they can’t accept the fact that He is GOD. That’s ludicrous. Because “God’s sovereignty” seems to be such a difficult issue for some believers to accept, consider this — imagine that you are the ETERNAL GOD and that nothing else exists in the entire universe (just you), not even space, mass or time (those are all part of the created order)… now, should you decide to create something (anything) — remember you are all that exists; there is nothing else! — by definition would it not automatically be “completely subject to you” and “not independent of you”? Remember, you are eternal in every regard — to be eternal is to have no beginning and no end; therefore, only that which is temporal could be created, so nothing you make could be eternal or your equal… in actuality anything that you would make would be infinitesimally smaller than you, no matter how big it was (read Is 40:17-18, 22-26, 28; Ps 59:8; Prv 1:20-33). The fact is, that is precisely the position the world’s greatest philosophers came to over the centuries (philosophy is simply “a logical explanation of reality”) — that the created realm could not be independent of the Creator (there is no other logical conclusion that one can arrive at); to argue to the contrary is to simply not understand the eternal transcendence of God. In spite of the logic of the issue, however, many Christians still have a difficult time accepting this position, even though Scripture and logic clearly teach it; and that is what is puzzling. The only reason I can think that one would “reject this position,” is that when it is practically worked out in a person’s life, it becomes more than a philosophical supposition, because the Christian life is about the God of creation actually being intimately involved in one’s life — in other words, I think the issue becomes “too personal” when it is a part of the everyday fabric of one’s existence, so they reject it. Furthermore, to embrace the concept of God being sovereign, means that “we” are not in absolute control of our own lives, and that is “not an acceptable premise for our flesh.”
As God’s creatures, we simply need to “let God be GOD and accept His eternal decrees, even if we don’t understand them or like them.” Therefore, by definition, if God is GOD, He does whatever He pleases, and if He is HOLY (as Scripture attests) then everything He does is good and right and pure (regardless of whether we understand it or like it). God told the prince of prophets Isaiah: “I am God… there is no other… I have declared the end from the beginning… My purposes will be established… I will accomplish all My good pleasure” (Is 46:9-11; Is 14:24, 27; 23:9; 25:1-2; 37:26; 40:8; Rom 8:28-30; Eph 1:5; 1 Pet 1:3; 2:9). Those words obviously describe a God who is GOD. By the way, what else would you expect from GOD? To rebel against a God who is absolutely sovereign (which is what He is — 1 Tim 6:15-16), or not like such a God, is to “pay homage to the arguing sin disposition of one’s soul,” which (sadly) is what all of us do at times — when things don’t go the way “we want them to go” (i.e., our flesh), we become upset, anxious, and frustrated; and that, my friend, simply defines “our flesh.” Think about that last statement — our flesh wants to run things! it wants to be God! it has the same problem Satan has! If we continue to wrestle with accepting the idea that God is GOD (i.e., sovereign), we will not only struggle in “submitting to Him” (because we won’t like the way that He runs things), but we will also struggle with trying to “run our own lives” — which is not possible because God is GOD (Prv 16:1, 9; 20:24; Lk 12:18-20; Jam 4:13-17). Obviously, if you and I were given the opportunity to “design the divine economy under which we live,” none of us would have designed it the way God designed it, because none of us would have included the presence of “indwelling sin”(the flesh) in us (the root of all our problems and unbelief).
Furthermore, if you and I were God, we would never have given Satan and his minions a “single moment of victory.” Yet, there is a day rapidly approaching when God is going to let the vast majority of the world’s population “bow at Satan’s feet” and “swear allegiance to him” (Mt 24:15-24; 2 Th 2:3-12; Rev 13:11-18; 20:7-8). Believers here in America oftentimes forget that the world “hates God!” and “hates light!” (Jn 3:2; 7:7), and “hates the followers of Christ!” (Mt 10:22; 24:9; Lk 6:22; Jn 15: 18-25; 17:14). Up until recently, the Christian community seemed to represent the “moral majority” in our country, and “persecution” was an unheard of relic of antiquity, and then the “ungodly” and the “god-haters” began to get their feet entrenched in the mainstream of American culture and politics, and their support now constitutes a majority in our country; they are not only “ungodly” in their behavior, but “god-hating” in their speech. How did we go from being a so-called godly nation, to being an ungodly one? It’s difficult to know all the reasons, but God Himself decreed long ago that it would ultimately be so — and that is a troubling theological proposition for many believers to accept (for a more com-plete understanding of this subject, read my study on “Sin & Man’s Eternal Purpose”). As believers we continue to pray that our nation will turn to God, but to the dismay of many, God will one day let it completely slide into the immoral abyss of darkness, and the Christian community in the West will finally get a taste of the persecution the early church experienced — though perhaps not as radical. By the way, you can be sure the early church pleaded that God not suffer it so — but as the Lord told the prince of prophets, Isaiah, “My ways are not your ways” (Is 55:8). The sober reality is, God has decreed that SIN is going to reign in all its glory for a season before HE ultimately puts an end to it — it appears that season of darkness is rapidly approaching.
Ultimately, the church here in the West is going to experience a significant degree of “hostile hatred” — the political left already has an “intense hatred” for the “religious sector” in our society. Bill Maher, a supra-left liberal talk show host, has blasted Christians repeatedly on his nationwide television show — you would think such hostile speech would be against the law, but obviously it is not; if Islam was being denigrated like Christianity, our courts would have stopped it long ago (hate speech from those on the left is deemed “freedom of speech” — not so when it comes from those on the right). Maher has actually scorned the very idea of the existence of GOD — “only a fool could believe such nonsense!” — and that’s the evolu-tionary message that is being taught in our public schools! The untold millions who applaud this mindless rhetoric are now strongly influencing the ideology of the left. Make no mistake about it, “they hate the religious right… they hate the moral teachings of the Bible and its exclusionary message… and they hate the so-called GOD of the Bible who authored it all!” These naysayers believe the Christian message is not only foolish nonsense, but that it is divisive and constitutes “hate speech!” and that it has no place in our society! In just a few short years we have seen “homosexuality” catapult its way to the top of the charts as the “ultimate determinant” on what is moral and what is immoral — homosexuals now dominate the entertainment industry, and homosexuality is now the “litmus test” on what is morally acceptable in our society — those who disagree with them are labeled “immoral bigots!” Furthermore, Christian psychological counseling to help people get delivered from this life-style, is now being outlawed across the country. The truth is, we now live in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Phil 2:15), one that hates what is good and loves what is bad (Jn 3:19-20; Mic 3:2)… remember, “as it was in the days of Noah and Lot, so shall it be in the days of the Son of Man” (Gen 6:5, 11-12; Lk 17:26-33; Rom 1:22-32; 1 Cor 6:9-10; 2 Tim 3:1-5). In February of this year (2014), at a national forum on “Secularism” at Biola University, Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias said, “America stands at a brink and at a time of in her history where if we do not pay heed to the decline of our moral values, the cliff’s precipitous edge is extremely close.” The problem says nationally syndicated radio host Dennis Prager (a practicing Jew) is this — “Secularism is it own religious idea, that the world is better with no God and no religion.” States Barry Corey, president of Biola University, “At the prestigious institutions originally founded with God-centered missions, God is now viewed as irrelevant to serious inquiry and a hindrance to intellectual respectability.” Tragically, the tentacles of secular thinking is now even making inroads into the minds of many in the Christian community.
Such distain for the Christian right should cause us to “rethink our strategy of action” — rather than trying to “legislate people into the kingdom!” (which never seemed logical in the first place — trying to get unbelievers to act godly? when believers can’t even do it?)… instead we need to start “loving people into the kingdom!” The problem with the church in 20th century America was that it cared more about “doctrine” than “righteous living.” In recent years, the Christian right in our country was far too “political” in its orientation, and far too “unloving.” We cared more about “political victories” than “spiritual victories!” We were actually more interested in “beating them” than “winning them” — how could one actually expect to “win someone to Christ” by condemning them and berating them? … to “alienate” them and then expect them to be favorably disposed to us? It is no wonder the “hatred” for the Christian right is off the charts. Rather than focusing on the “positive” (loving the ungodly to Christ), we focused on the “negative” (their diabolical sinfulness) — by the way, how can you expect unbelievers to “live godly lives”? they are the children of the devil! We need to get out of politics (as though that is the answer), and get into loving people (which is the answer). Our problem as Christians, is that we not only hated “the sin,” but we grew to hate “the sinner” as well — in part because our faith is a shallow misdirected faith. We have been more interested in creating some kind of “spiritual utopia” right here on planet earth, where we can live happily everafter. Sadly, many Christians still think the answer to America’s problems is a “political one” — if that is your opinion, you’re living in a world of unreality. No doubt, most of you are aware that “Christian radio” was outlawed in Canada a number of years ago, because it constituted “hate speech”… well, we are only a few years away from that happening here in America… it is only a matter of time until the government completely shuts it down (radio & television) — and our picketing and protesting isn’t going to do one thing to stop it (all that will do is embolden and intensify the left’s hatred for Christians). Remember, when the “haters” outnumber the “hated,” the hated lose (do the math). By the way, God Himself has decreed that Satan and his minions are going to have their hour of glory! Therefore, we need to concentrate on being the “loving community” we were commanded to be 2,000 years ago; which we are not! (Mt 5:43-48; Jn 13:34-35; 1 Cor 13:4-7). Let me once again remind you of the purpose of this study — to awaken believers to the spiritual realities that really exist. In truth, I almost hated raising this “political issue,” because it is such a firestorm for so many believers.
Just so you know, “God has severely tested my faith,” as He has some of you (1 Pet 1:6-7, 24-25; 4:12-13; 5:6-10; 2 Pet 1:3-7; 2:9; 3:3, 13, 18), and like everyone else, I did not find it an enjoyable exper-ience (neither did Job). Though “my being tested” did not destroy my faith… it was such a debilitating and frustrating experience for me that I came to the point where I asked God to “either do an encouraging work in my life or take me home… because the pain in my soul is more than I can bear or wish to endure; and since I don’t see an ‘end’ in sight, I’m asking You to take me home” (1 Kg 19:4; Job 3:1-3, 11, 20-26; Jer 20:14-18). Essentially, that was the gist of my argument. You may have had a similar experience (Job 1:6-12; Lk 2:31)… you may not have. God doesn’t work the same way in all of us; His plan for each of us differs — some of us go through a “Job-like experience,” others do not (Jn 21:22). I had always hoped that I would somehow get an “exemption” from that kind of suffering (some of you may have wished the same thing) — but such was not God’s plan for me… the “darkness I experienced in my soul” was so heavy and debilitating that I simply didn’t want to go on. I share that story only for the sake of those who may have had a similar experience, and may have struggled in much the same way I did. I am not simply into “bearing my soul” for no reason; I have borne my soul in this study for the sake of “your soul.” The truth is, I wish I had heard something like this earlier on my spiritual journey… perhaps it would have impacted my faith at a far younger age — perhaps it would not have (that statement will make sense to you later in this study).
It is important to mention that I ultimately discovered through it all that “God did not leave me in the dark, or suffer me to be tempted (tried) beyond that which I was able to endure” (1 Cor 10:13); though it clearly felt like it at the time. The long and short of it was, God delivered me from the furnace of affliction after He accomplished His purposes through it (1 Pet 1:6-7; 5:8-10). What I learned through it all is that when all is said and done in life, “We must let God be GOD and trust His wise bestowment, knowing that He gives what He deems best to each of us as His children [to accomplish His purposes]… lovingly it is part of pain and pleasure, mingling toil with peace and rest.” That is the way the Swedish hymn writer Carolina Sandell Berg described it in her incredible hymn “Day by Day.” And as Job succinctly put it, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him… nevertheless I will argue my ways before Him” (Job 13:15; Jn 6: 68). When all is said and done, my suggestion to you is this: “when your flesh and darkness gets the best of you — go to God!” because you are no match for your flesh or Satan (Phil 4:6-7; 1 Th 5:17; 1 Pet 5:7; Eph 6:18). Remember, you are tempted from within and without; by your flesh, the world, the devil and his minions (Eph 6:11-12; Jam 1:14-15; 1 Pet 5:8). The sinful voice within (your flesh) loves the world and darkness, and hates God and righteousness, and it will never stop trying to convince you of its diabolical ways. If you entertain what it has to say, in some measure you will fall… God may be able to listen to the voice of evil (Satan), but you cannot (because of the indwelling presence of your sinful flesh) — so “go to God” the moment you hear its evil mutterings. As the eighteenth century British evangelist, George Whitefield (1714-1770) said — “The best of men are men at best.”
11. Due to the fact that “saying no to sin” is such a difficult hurdle for believers to conquer, let me expand on this subject in more detail. The reason all of us sin is that we entertain (i.e., listen to) what the flesh and Satan have to say to us (Jam 1:14-15), and because we find their message somewhat “desirable” (Gen 3:6; Jam 1:14), we give in and sin (be it a sensual, material-istic, or egotistical sin). By definition, we are only “tempted” when our fleshly desires are aroused — we are not tempted to do something “undesirable” (for example, we would never be tempted to eat maggots). Therefore, we sin because we “feel” like it. Since the dynamic of the flesh is “feeling,” and the dynamic of the Spirit is “faith,” therein lies both the problem and the solution. In order to not sin we must “reject our feelings,” and this is done “by faith.” Because we often feed our feelings rather than reject our feelings we sin. Let me give you an example from my own life — since certain cultural/political issues can agitate me or make me angry (cf. Ps 73:16), I frequently find myself having to turn away from something I may be read-ing, watching, or listening to, and give my attention to something else. Though I don’t like the fact that I become angry, that is the reality — to continue feeding my negative feelings simply invites sin. Each of us have “different weaknesses” with which to deal (Heb 12:1), and we all have a few very persistent ones… so whenever you are tempted to sin, you have to deliber-ately take steps to focus your attention on something else. King Solomon used the “harlot” as evil’s representative in his advice to his sons; he said to them: “Do not go near her house or stray into her paths” (Prv 5:8; 7:25). The message is obvious: if there are “issues” that cause you to stumble (Heb 12:1), and you choose to entertain those issues, you are inviting certain sin. Case closed. It is simply not possible to play with the fires of hell and not get scorched!
Since each of us have a good understanding of “our weaknesses” (2 Cor 12:7-10), you should have an “action-based escape plan” that you can implement at any given moment (Rom 8:13; 1 Cor 9:27; 10:13-14; Phil 4:8-9; Col 3:2-8; 1 Tim 6:11; 2 Tim 2:22; 2 Pet 2:9) — change channels, read a book, go for a walk, call a friend, run an errand, pray about the situation, and if another person is a part of the problem, pray for them! (that’s a must, whether you know them or not, because in praying for them you will get your mind focused on “God’s will” for their life, and off of the temptation (be it anger, jealousy, lust, injustice, or a people problem). If you do not take action the moment temptation surfaces, the flesh will immediately take advantage of it and establish a foothold in your life and “weaken your faith.” Obviously, not every temptation is as easily overcome as flipping a channel or going for a walk… so when confronted with distressing issues such as cancer, death, divorce, malice, betrayal, rejection, or some major loss, victory and peace oftentimes only come after spending significant time in prayer and giving the problem to the Lord (Mt 26:41; Phil 4:6-9; 1 Pet 5:7) — the more difficult and intense a temptation may be, the more concerted our effort must be in overcoming it. Admittedly, some temptations and trials are very difficult and painful, so we must always be mindful that God in His sovereignty has permitted it for the purpose of growing our faith (that is always the reason — never is it to punish you — and never is it without purpose)… so we must always be prepared to fight the “faith battle;” there are no other options (cf. 2 Cor 9:8; Phil 4:13). It is also important to remember, when you are being subjected to difficult times, your flesh will always present its list of diabolical reasons why you are being tested — such as: “you are a spiritual failure… God is disappointed in you… God is angry with you for some sin… God no longer loves you, etc.” — and we frequently have a tendency to buy into one of its lies. Our flesh is like a “conniving snake” in the Garden of Eden — it always questions the integrity of God and His love for us (Gen 3:1-6).
The question many believers ask is this: “How do you know when your flesh is the source of your thoughts?” Being as your flesh is diabolical in nature, anytime you have a thought that runs “contrary to the teaching of Scripture,” it is a fleshly thought. The Christian is made aware of “sinful thoughts” by the convicting, indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (Jn 8:46; 10:4; 14:16-17; 16:13; Gal 5:16-23)… so once we are consciously aware that a particular thought is a sinful thought, we need to “reject it” immediately so that it does not conceive (Jam 1:14-15), and replace it with a godly thought (Phil 4:6-9) — for instance, if someone is getting under your skin, rather than letting your thoughts go south, you need to immediately “pray for them!” If they are not a believer, pray for their soul… if they are a believer, pray for their heart, and intercede on their behalf before the throne of grace. Though many of our thoughts may be “neutral” or have some kind of “practical-orientation,” we need to always be mindful of what it is we are letting our mind dwell on; if we find that our thoughts are not edifying (not helpful or healthy in some way), we need to redirect our thinking. When temptation becomes evident, we must then take steps to overcome it, and that means “consciously depending upon the Holy Spirit” (Rom 8:13; Gal 5:17) — and all such dependency involves “faith” (2 Cor 5:7; Gal 2:20; 3:11; 1 Jn 5:4). Remember, we don’t simply have faith in rules, concepts, or principles… we have faith in a living reality — GOD — that means faith is relational in its essence. So overcoming temptation is not just a matter of “changing our thoughts” (as if victory is found in the power of right think-ing — that is simply humanistic psychology), but getting GOD involved! because only GOD can give us victory (Jn 15:5; Gal 5:16-17; Phil 4:13). Thus, there must be “a conscious awareness of God’s presence in your life”… “a conscious understanding of His will”… and “a conscious dependence upon the His Spirit.” Without being “conscious” of these three things, it is not possible to “walk with God” and overcome temptation. That means we overcome temptation by consciously acknowledging His presence, His precept, His promise, and His power (Rom 1: 17; 1 Cor 10:13; 2 Cor 10:5; Gal 2:20), and this is done by “conversing with Him.” Because temptation involves spiritual warfare, be sure to keep your dialogue with God (and His truths) front and center in your thinking, and not what the flesh has to say.
We receive this conscious knowledge when we study the Word (Rom 10:17)… and living by the truths therein is the essence of “faith.” Furthermore, “mature faith” is only developed when it is being exercised in the midst of challenging, disquieting circumstances. Strengthening one’s faith has been compared to building muscles: without strong resistance you can’t build strong muscles. Conversely, it is not possible to build a strong mature faith without “putting forth a concerted effort when you are being tried and tempted” — and being as that is not an easy task, Scripture refers to it as “a war, a marathon, a fight, a death” (Rom 8:13, 36; 1 Cor 15:31; Eph 6:10-18; 1 Tim 6:12; Heb 12-1-2, 5-11; Jam 1:2-3, 12). To successfully wage war against sin, you need to ask God for the grace to fight to fight the battle (Phil 4:13)… and you need to affirm and apply the truths of Scripture that you might stand victorious and not fall (Eph 6:11-17; Jam 5:9). Here’s an encouraging word: When we do our part (by God’s grace), God then does His part — so when we strive to believe His Word, the Spirit makes it possible for us to do so (Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:13). Remember the words of Paul to the church at Corinth: “I planted, but God caused the growth” (1 Cor 3:6). Obviously, if Paul had not planted the seed, there would have been no growth; con-versely, if you don’t do your part in growing your faith and overcoming the flesh, God is not going to do His part in growing it and giving you the victory. Let me explain it using the following metaphor — suppose God gave you a beautiful spiritual piece of property and a spiritual lawnmower with which to cut the spiritual grass… if you don’t get off your duff and mow the lawn, rather having a beautiful lawn, you are going to have a garden full of waist-high weeds, because God is not going to cut the grass for you! The long and short of it is this: God is not going to do the work that He has given you the grace to do! Application: God has given you a brain, the capacity to read, two eyes with which to read, a copy of His Word, two hands to turn its pages, and “plenty of time!” — take note, you have weeds to pick and spirit- ual grass to mow every day! If you’re looking for a “once a week” kind of religion, look elsewhere, because that’s not the Christian faith. So dig in, study it, and start walking with God! (Gal 5:17). Intimacy with Christ and walking with Christ is what the Christian life is all about; if you do not put forth an effort to “draw near to Him,” you are not going to “experi-ence” His presence, His power, His peace, or His joy (cf. Lk 6:38; Jn 15:4-5; Phil 2:12-13; Jam 4:6-8).
Walking with Christ or walking in the Spirit is a “conscious/faith experience”… it is not an “unconscious/mystical experience” (as some believe) where we somehow experience an ethereal connection with God and automatically start walking with Him in a “mysterious, mystical manner” (and where we live above the fray) — wow! wouldn’t that be great!…no more problems!… no more hassles!… eternal bliss here and now!… that’s nothing but a pie in the sky kind of faith that doesn’t exist; that’s fairyland Christianity! An unconscious mystical experience is not at all what walking with Christ / Spirit is about. There is a radical difference between “living by faith” and having some kind of “magical, mystical experience.” As stated earlier, Spirit-inspired faith involves knowing, believing and obeying “the truth of Scripture” (Jn 1:12; 14:6, 15; Rom 10:17; Eph 6:17; Heb 11:1, 6); furthermore, it is not a matter of believ-ing what you want it to say… it is a matter of believing what it actually says. It is at this point where we all fail at times, because of the deceptiveness of our flesh — for instance, when we are “being tempted to sin,” most of us are simply “looking for a way out;” we just want the temptation to stop. So we ask God to “deliver us from it,” all the while hoping that He will take it away! Sounds reasonable, but that is not what Scripture teaches. Here’s the problem: when what we “think” does not correspond with “reality” (truth), we ultimately become spiritually disappointed and frustrated, because things don’t work out the way we want them to or how we think they should; so when God doesn’t respond like we want Him to, we either become disappointed in Him or we question the integrity of our faith.
Most believers are somewhat disillusioned with their faith, because 80-90% of what they pray for seems to be ignored by God; as such, they generally conclude that it must be “their fault”… that they are simply “not spiritual enough,” or that something must be wrong with “their beliefs” — and the resultant effect is a degree of distance then sets in between them and God. When that happens, many Christians stop praying because it seems to be nothing but a “futile exercise” for them. The apostle Paul appealed to the Lord three times to deliver him from “his thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7-9)… and Jesus implored the Father three times to take the cup of suffering from Him (Mt 26:36-44). Paul had “drawn near to God” in the intensity of his pain, imploring the Lord to deliver him — the Lord responded, “My grace is sufficient for you [for everything in your life].” God did not remove the thorn (whatever it may have been), because “the discomforting pain had spiritual benefits;” it kept him humble and fully dependent on God… and it drew him intimately closer to the Lord. The “fires of affliction” burn away the dross of pride and self-confidence in our lives — physical suffering, mental anguish, disappointment, lack of fulfillment, and failure squeeze the “impurities” out of our lives, in order that we might be pure vessels through which God’s power can flow (2 Cor 12:9b). The writer of Hebrews urged suffering believers to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace — that you may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). As believers (contrary to what some may think), we are ever in need of the mercy and grace of God… and it is only a prayer away. We may not get the request itself granted, but His grace and mercy are always available to us that we might “endure” (Jam 1:3-4) — that word “endure” (hupomeno) literally means “to remain under” the trial, “to bear up courageously” under suffering (cf. Mt 10:22; Rom 12:12; 1 Cor 13:7; 2 Tim 2:10, 12; Heb 10:32; 12:2; 12:7); so rather than trying to get out from under a trial, we are to hang in there and endure it courageously by God’s grace. James says, “Blessed is a man who perseveres (hupomeno) under trial; for once he has been approved (remember, the context here is the testing of one’s faith by trials — once our faith has passed the test by steadfastly “remaining under”) we will receive the crown of life” (Jam 1:12) — and the life that God promises to those who endure is more than the eternal life that awaits us in heaven… it is also the abundant life God promises us here and now (Jn 10:10).
It is also helpful to reflect upon the words of Jesus to His disciples: “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Mt 26:41;Mk 14:38; Lk 22:40, 46) — notice Jesus did not instruct them to pray that “they may not be tempted;” instead He told them to “pray for the strength to stand when temptation comes — that you not enter into it!” You remember what happened that night in the Garden of Gethsemane… when temptation came, the disciples fell (they fled) because they had failed to pray. The truth of the matter is, there is a “spiritual war” to be fought when temptation comes our way, and we must be prepared to fight it, and not just try to get out from under it or escape having to deal with it. The fact is, we are in a battle against the forces of darkness (Eph 6:12), so to ask God to “take us out of the fray” is like asking Him to keep us from having to fight the war we have been called to fight; by the way, only eternity is about “living happily ever after” (not this world) — yet, that is not the mindset of many Christians; they insist on creating a little utopia for themselves, and are not at all concerned with fighting (Jn 6:66-68; 1 Tim 6:12). Again, if our primary focus in life is on having a pleasant, trouble-free life, we will really struggle when trials and temptations come our way (Lk 14:28) — such would be akin to a soldier being sent to a “war zone” somewhere, all the while expecting to end up at some luxurious beachside resort with all his buddies and a truckload of amenities; the incon-gruity of such thinking is absurd… yet that is the mindset that many believers have; thus when the enemy launches his attack, they then become disappointed with their faith as if “something strange is happening to them” (1 Pet 4:12). Here’s a question that you need to ask yourself — What are “your expectations” in life? Are you living in a world of reality (truth), or are you insisting that reality not be what it is?
I am reminded of the words of David in Psalm 23 — “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because Thou art with me” (Ps 23:4). Notice that David talked about “going through the valley of the shadow of death” — “not going around it,” or “not having to go through it at all.” The Christian life is about going through difficult times, and coming out from them stronger and more resolute in our faith. Jesus said to His disciples, “In this world you will have tribulation” (Jn 16:33); yet most believers are baffled when they occur! and spend their spiritual energies on trying to get out from under them, rather than going through them with faith. The unspoken desire of every believer, basically, is that their lives be as pleasant and trouble-free as possible, and they diligently do everything they can to make it just that; after all, God surely wouldn’t have us be miserable? James writes, “Consider it joy when you encounter various trials, because this testing of your faith is the method God uses to strengthen your faith” (Jam 1:2-3); so not having to go through trails would simply mean having a “weak faith” (very weak). Here’s the paradox — every believer has enough faith to get to heaven, but not enough to give him peace now! Thus when you are “tried or tempted” (same Greek word), realize that God is “testing your faith;” that is, He is subjecting it to the “fire” to purify it (cf. 1 Pet 1:6; 4:12; 5:10) — because it is a weak faith (some of you may be too proud to accept that assessment of your faith, so let me state it in the negative — it is not a strong faith). Gold and silver are “purified in the furnace” by bringing them to a boil so that the dross (impurities) can be removed (Ps 12:6; Prv 27:21; Is 48:10); that is the metaphor Scripture uses to describe the purifying of our faith. So the purpose of all trials and temptations is to “purify and strengthen our faith” — by the way, with every trial there is temptation, and with every temptation there is trial; they are two sides of the same coin. So…
What should “our attitude” be with regard to the trials and temptations we go through in life? Do we accept them joyfully or begrud-gingly? That is a “perplexing question” for the believer because of the presence of indwelling sin; furthermore, trials are certainly not fun. Though all of us would no doubt get the answer right on a “true/false” test, our life’s response generally suggests otherwise. The vast majority of us try to live the Christian life in accord with the “various virtues of the Christian faith” as outlined in Scripture: living a life of righteousness, studying the Word and praying… keeping short accounts with God… taking a stand against unrighteousness… worshipping with God’s people… fellowshipping with other believers… sharing with those in need… serving others… and enjoying God’s goodness to us. But what about “the daily issue of fighting the fight of faith”? (growing your trust in God). The Bible teaches that life essentially is all about “GOD” (all things are made by Him and for Him – Rom 11:36) and our relationship with Him, and interposed with that is “our faith,” without which we would not have a relationship with Him (Heb 11:6). Since “faith” is the conduit thru which we receive God’s grace into our lives, it is important that we not only understand what faith is, but understand what God does in our lives to make it stronger, and that is where trials and temptation come into the mix.
Every trial that God lets us experience in life, is there for the purpose of “strengthening our faith.” Without being subjected to God’s crucible (difficult trials) our faith simply would not grow; yet the common response to trials by believers is to simply ask God to “deliver us from them,” because we simply don’t want to go through them. Note the ambiguity — no trials, no growth! All of us want God to “deliver us from distressing circumstances” (that is the norm – cf. Ps 22:4; 25:20; 31:1; 39:8; 40:13; 41:1; 59:1; 71:2; 79:9; 119:170; 144:7) — but above everything, “the Lord wants us to desire His will for our lives, and trust His wise bestowment” (cf. Mt 6:10; 26:39)… all the while being mindful of the fact that He will not suffer us to be tempted and tried beyond what we are able to endure (1 Cor 10:13)… that He will only permit us to be distressed by trials for a limited period of time to accomplish His purposes (1 Pet 1:6-7; 5:10; 2 Cor 4:17)… and that He ultimately knows how to rescue us from the trials and temptations to which we are subjected (2 Pet 2:9). To reiterate: the reason we are subjected to trials is that God uses them to “grow our trust in Him” and “strengthen our faith” — and that, my friend, is one of the major reasons why we have not yet gone to glory — we’re simply not yet ready!
Most believers think their faith grows simply by going to church and studying the Word… the truth of the matter is our faith only “grows” when it is “being exercised” in the midst of trying circumstances. We come to faith in Christ through the spoken or written Word, and are convicted of its truthfulness by the Holy Spirit (Rom 10:17; Jn 16: 8-13; Acts 16:14; 1 Jn 2:20, 27)… but our faith only grows when it is being “tested and tried” (1 Pet 1:6-7; Is 48:10) — so be it a “small trial” (an aggravation in the mind) or a “large trial” (a grievous situation), God uses every trial in life to “grow our faith.” Don’t confuse “growing in faith” with “growing in know-ledge.” For us to respond negatively to trials by getting angry or exasperated, is to forego the opportunity to do our part in “growing our faith” — thus to respond to a trial without “exercising faith” is to gain absolutely nothing from it (Jam 1:2-3; Rom 5:3-5), even though God does use painful trials to ultimately draw us closer to Himself (read Psalm 32:3-4 with the understanding that not trusting God is sin — God uses “pain” to draw us closer to Himself). For us to simply pray that “God would cause the trial to stop,” however, generally ends up causing us to either be disappointed with God for not helping us, or be disappointed with the quality of our faith (because it fails to yield the results we desire). The truth is, our faith and trust of God is measured by our response to difficulties — that is the proving ground. With that said, how should we pray when we are being tested & tempted? How should we respond to trials and temptation? As believers we need to ask God for the grace and the faith to joy-fully and victoriously work through our trials & temptations, and that is only possible by consciously walking with Christ (cf. Jn 15:5; Gal 5:17; Phil 4:13; Jam 1:2).
12. When you are “drowning in negative emotion” (flesh is ruling), and your world becomes dark… you have to find a way to “turn the light on” and see reality for what it really is. But turning that light on can [admittedly] be difficult. Obviously when our negative feelings become intense, and we feel overwhelmed and devitalized by them, we may sometimes won-der if the sun will ever shine in our life again. Pessimistic spiritual depression is common to all of us at times… the soul becomes downcast and disquieted, and our faith is challenged by the tension of our burdened state of mind. The psalmist cried out in his despondent state — “O my soul, why are you so despairing” (Ps 42:5; also Ps 22:1-5), but notice his response of faith: “I will hope in God, the help of my countenance.” He reminded himself to trust in God, because He would surely bring him to his desired end. If his response had simply been human optimism “that everything is going to turn out all right” (a common response for most people), it would have been a worthless sentiment… but this hope is an absolute guarantee because it is based on the promise of God’s Word (cf. Ps 27:1; 46:1; 62:1-2; 121:1-3; Rom 8:29-31; Phil 1:6). Because things generally turn out all right in people’s lives (i.e., people generally get well after getting sick — incidentally, that is the result of common grace), the unbeliever simply places his con-fidence in the truth of this maxim… but the believer is to understand that “trials” have a far more distinct purpose in his life — that of conforming him to the image of Christ — thus, he is to respond to his trials “with faith.” The psalmist had experienced the deliverance of the Lord enough times to give him “confidence” in God’s faithfulness — that’s faith (Heb 11:1) — as such, he trusted the Lord even when his world became dark. The truth of the matter is, the “light” does not always shine brightly in our lives (sometimes there is darkness), and it is during these times that the only thing we have to hang on to is “our faith” — nothing else — not even a sense of God’s presence. Paul reminds us in his second letter to the Corinthians that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7) — though sometimes we are blessed with circumstantial evidence and feelings of a deep abiding peace (which one could conclude is “walking with a degree of sight”), that is not always the norm; it is when “we simply trust the truths of God’s Word” without the slightest amount of sight, that we really exercise a “mature faith” — a faith that does not lean on any accompanying evidence
The writer of Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance/confidence of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1) — obviously, “we hope for what we do not see” (Rom 8:25); that is why it is called “faith” (2 Cor 5:7). When we humble ourselves before the Lord, He gives us the grace to believe truth with confidence & conviction (Acts 16:14; 1 Cor 2:14; Eph 2:8; Jam 4:6); so believing the truth requires “divine enablement” (it is simply not in us to decipher truth by ourselves; cf. 1 Cor 2:14). Remember the words of Jesus when He cried out to the Father for deliverance the night before He went to the cross, “Father, take this cup from Me,” yet in faith He said, “Nevertheless, not My will, but Thine be done” (Mt 26:39). Trusting God and His promises is the essence of faith, and it is these thoughts that must replace the disquieting thoughts of the flesh in our minds. To simply wish that the desires of the flesh would be dis-pelled in some way, or completely suppressed, is outside the will of God for us in this life. That is why it is so critical for us to prayerfully reflect upon God’s promises, and ask Him for the grace to believe them and stand in them — this spirit of dependency on God and His Word needs to be a daily practice in our lives. In short, “walking with Christ” requires a conscious awareness of His presence, a conscious dependency on Him, and a conscious understanding of His will and His promises… and when you consciously affirm such to be true in your mind, God will give you the grace to walk accordingly. Due to the presence of “indwelling sin in our lives” (our flesh), it is essential that we understand that it is only by grace that we are able to overcome it. That means we need to have a conscious under-standing of “our need of grace” in every situation of life — carefully think about that. We are always in need of God’s grace:
- When you are TROUBLED OVER SOMETHING (be it circumstantial, medical, injustice, social, political, relational, sexual, spiritual), you first need to articulate the problem to God, and ask Him for “the grace to deal with it”… “the grace to think right thoughts”… and “the grace to accept that which you find difficult to accept.” Note carefully, it is all by “grace!”
- When you STUMBLE AND SIN, ask God for “the grace to confess”… “the grace to accept His forgiveness”… “the grace to overcome your sin”… and “the grace to be restored.”
- When you APPROACH GOD’S WORD, ask God for “the grace to commune with Him”… “the grace to hear His voice”… “the grace to understand His ways”… “the grace to obey Him”… “the grace to quiet the voice of your flesh”… and “the grace to grow in your faith.”
- When you ASK GOD FOR SOMETHING, in addition to asking Him for “the grace to get your request granted”… you also need to ask Him for “the grace to accept His answer,” should it not be His will, because often it is not (you need grace accept “no” answers).
Everything you need in life is given to you by God (gift) because of His grace (favor). To be mindful of that in every situation of life helps you see the “loving hand of God in all of life.” The truth is, “it is by God’s grace alone that we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28; 2 Pet 3:18). If you don’t have a significant grasp of the concept of “grace,” you will constantly struggle spiritually, because every step forward in the Christian life is by grace alone (Phil 2:13; 2 Pet 1:2; 3:18). As the psalmist said, “Unless the Lord builds the house, he labors in vain who builds it” (Ps 127:1). With that said, however, there is a tendency for some believers to think that God essentially does all the work in our souls… that His grace overpowers us and gives us the victory; but that is not the case. Just because our spiritual progress is the result of “grace,” doesn’t mean that we don’t have to put forth a significant effort to achieve it. The apostle Paul said, “I buffet (beat) my body, and make it my slave” (1 Cor 9:27; cf. Rom 6:12; 8:13) — the word “buffet” (hupopiazo) is a word that literally means to “beat oneself under the eye until it is black and blue;” Paul uses the term metaphorically to describe the suppressive treatment of his body that is needed in order to keep himself spiritually fit — why was this necessary? because his body and his flesh stubbornly sought to serve themselves (Rom 6:12-13; 12:1). In other words, when we exercise the kind of spiritual discipline that God requires of us, He will cause us to grow in sanctification and holiness (cf. 1 Cor 3:6).
The renowned British preacher, Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), was pastor of the largest church in the world (in London) during the 19th century. He emphatically believed that the Holy Spirit does not bless churches where “holiness” is not regarded. Spurgeon feared that evangelical churches were increasingly becoming more “tolerant of the sin of worldliness in its many forms” (sounds like the evangelical church in present day America). He did not expect to see conversions in churches where “the members commonly go to the amusements of the world” — he believed any amusement that has the slightest taint of impurity (the least toleration of ungodliness) needed to be shunned by believers… and that “actual sin” must be repressed with a strong hand (Speeches at Home & Abroad. London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1878, p. 118). It is a sad commentary on the Christian community in our country today that it has become so attracted to the amusements of the world… there seems to be very little difference between what the world does today and what the Christian does. The believing community needs to “distance itself from the amusements of the world” if it wants to experience God’s anoint-ing and blessing, and become a powerful, spiritual force in the world. In short, we embrace the amusements of the world when we find enjoyment in… “the decadent work of the entertainment industry”… “the provocative clothing of the fashion industry”… and “the diabolical values of an ungodly society.” This isn’t being “narrow minded” as some might think — it is a matter of “living a godly life” (cf. Rom 12:2; Phil 2:15; 1 Jn 2:15-17). Why do we persist in being wedded to the things of this world? Why can’t we draw a line in the sand like Joshua of old and refuse to cross it? (Josh 24:15). Remember, only the “pure in heart” shall see God” (Mt 5:8). You cannot feed on the garbage of this world and not have it seriously affect you spiritually… to somehow “plead ignorant” is nonsense, and a blatant contradiction of what Scripture teaches. The truth is, either you are aligning your life with Christ and His Word, or you are aligning your life with the world and the voice of your flesh (Titus 2:11-12; Jam 1:27).
Just because “we accomplish things by grace” in the Christian life, doesn’t mean they don’t require significant effort on our part or that they are easily achieved — the truth is much of the Christian life is an intense struggle! a fight! a war! and requires discipline! — the word “easy” has no place in the theology of grace, whether it is on God’s part or on our part. The cross that purchased our salvation obviously wasn’t easy, and neither is the work of sanctification; sal-vation from beginning to end is both painful and difficult (cf. 1 Pet 2:21; 4:1, 13, 17-18; 5:10; 2 Cor 1:5; Phil 2:12; 3:10; Col 1:24; Heb 2:10). By the way, it is by “grace” that I have written this study — and it only came about by my experiencing hell’s fury! sleepless nights! and an endless number of hours (actually years) in wrestling with theses truths (cf. 2 Tim 2:15). And just in case it crossed your mind, this study didn’t come about under the inspiration of a beautiful little spiritual cabin in the woods, or a nice little spiritual house on the shores of Malibu! Over the years I often wondered why it was so difficult to gain an understanding of so many spiritual truths, and why they required so many hours of intense study and hard work — the fact is, that’s the way God designed the spiritual learning process; for some reason, God never intended that it would be “super easy” to learn profound spiritual truth (Mt 13:10-17; 34-36; Act 17:11; Rom 10:17; 2 Tim 2:15; Jam 1:12, 21-22; 3:1; 1 Pet 1:10)… from the very beginning, it has always been a difficult task for me (no doubt because of the presence of indwelling sin/flesh). Gaining a deep under-standing of spiritual truth ultimately taxes every aspect of your being, because it strips away the pretense in your soul, and makes you come humble and naked to the cross… perhaps it is only achieved by traversing “holy ground” on hands and knees. It should be noted — it is not that difficult to understand truth at an elementary level… it only requires a childlike faith and a desire to follow Christ… it is when we seek to understand the hidden questions of the heart, that the process becomes difficult, challenging, painful and weighty.
The idea behind the word “grace” is that of “God’s favor.” Just because God pours out His favor upon those of us who believe, and everything we experience in the Christian life is a gift of God’s favor, that doesn’t mean its reception is going to come without pain or hard work. We become children of God by grace when we place our trust in Christ (Eph 2:8), and we are to “walk in grace” from that point on — and this we do “by faith” (believing God’s Word, and acting upon it)… but “walking by faith” involves an intense battle (1 Tim 6:12) because of the presence of indwelling sin (flesh). In the foregoing paragraphs, my goal was to let you know that nothing in the Christian life comes “easy” — it is all a very difficult work, but it is a work that is possible because of “God’s grace!” — that is not a contradiction (Phil 2:12-13); we don’t earn God’s grace, but we must comply with His Word in order to experience it! If you think that “exercising faith” amounts to “earning grace,” you’ve got the cart before the horse. Perhaps this little scenario might help shed light on the concept of grace — if someone came to you and offered you ten billion dollars to move from your dilapidated shack in the inner city to a mansion in Hawaii with numerous privileges and perks, and the opportunity to work in his father’s philanthropic business for the rest of your life… would you view that as earning it? or working for it? If you are thinking that you made a “sacrifice” in some way, then you are probably thinking that you had to “earn it.” Well, God has offered you eternal life in His eternal kingdom in exchange for your corrupt life of self-centeredness… He is simply asking you to turn from your old life of selfishness and sin, and embrace His life of godliness and righteousness… and though the demands on your life are not necessarily easy, He promises to give you “the grace” (the wherewithal) to do the work that He is asking you to do (cf. Phil 4:13). If you’re looking for an “easy way” to make this transition, there is none… but if you’re willing to hook your little buggy to God’s big wagon, He’ll get you there in spite of the fact that you’ll be traversing some very rough terrain (Lk 14:28).
Remember, God never asks you to do something that He doesn’t give you the grace to do… He is mindful of how terribly weak you are and how prone you are to wander (all of us are)… nevertheless, He will never give up on you… and one day the war in your soul will come to an end (1 Pet 5:10). The question is, “Are you willing to fight the fight of faith?” Someone has rightfully compared each of us as believers to a tattered piece of “worthless canvas,” upon which God is painting a masterpiece — if you were to find an old canvas that had been painted on, and discovered the signature on it was that of Van Gogh, you would find out that you had a very valuable piece of art in your possession… well the same goes for you, except the signature on your life is that of Jesus Christ! And that gives your life “eternal value!” So rejoice in what God is doing in your life, and strive to cooperate with Him every step of the way! (Phil 4:12-13). The eighteenth century English hymn writer Robert Robinson penned the following words that describe the cry of every child of grace in his hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” —
Come Thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise….
O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee:
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it; seal it for Thy courts above.
13. Now, as important as the previous twelve points are (and they are extremely important), the most important truth a believer can affirm is the fact that God loves him unconditionally!!! Nothing else comes “close” to this!!! Note the exclamation marks! If you doubt anything, don’t doubt God’s love for you! To doubt God’s love is to make the Christian life a very difficult struggle, and to live it with very little joy. Each of us as believers naturally wonder, “How can God love me, when there is very little to love in me?” The main problem for those of us here in the West, is that we have a difficult time differentiating between “liking” and “loving” — we use the two words interchangeably. To complicate the matter, human beings above everything else desperately want to be “liked!” (because of the presence of indwelling sin) — that is the most important desire of the flesh, and people will pretty much do anything to be liked. On the other hand, I don’t think human beings really know what to do with this thing called “love”… for most people it is a “wonderful, warm feeling of infatuation,” but to go much beyond that seems to cloud the issue; and here in the West we basically use the two terms interchange-ably — we love what we like, and like what we love. But when we apply that logic to God, it doesn’t work — though God likes a lot of things about each of us, there are some things He doesn’t like about each of us… but that has nothing to do with the fact that God loves us unconditionally! That’s why theologians tell us, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us less!” But due to the fact that this divine truism goes against human logic (fleshly thinking), it is very difficult for us to believe that God really loves us; thus it is only by faith that we can accept it.
Remember, God loved us so much, even as unbelievers, that He went to the cross for us. So God doesn’t love us because “we are lovely” — contrary to what our flesh may think — and here is where all of us as believers make a mistake at some point on our spiritual journey. The reason God loves us is because “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8-10) — that is simply the essence of who God is — and “His love trumps our sinfulness!” Did you catch that? The truth is, “the loving-kindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting!” (Ps 103:17; 136:1-26)… it never stops! regardless of the mess you and I make of life! That is why the apostle Paul asked the question, “What shall separate us from the love of God?” (Rom 8:35). “Nothing!” he concludes. Furthermore, instead of something actually separating us from God’s love (or so we think), everything only serves to draw us closer to Him!!! Even our sin draws us closer to Him, because its guilty pains cause us to run into His arms, experience His forgiveness, and magnify His Name! Though we are all becoming more and more like Christ (2 Cor 3:18), the truth is, this journey we are on is a long sinful one… and as incredible as it may seem, every sin we commit actually chips away at the “dross” in our faith (contrary to what some believers might think, our faith has a lot of dross in it), and ultimately causes us to hate our sinful flesh even more (that’s the paradox)… it’s kind of like this — the more we taste the poison within, the more bitter it tastes (not sweeter); if you are truly a believer, sooner or later you are going to “despise your sinfulness.”
The truth is, we are all moving forward in righteousness “one tiny step at a time.” When we confess our sins, all of heaven rejoices! Why? Because we are agreeing with God about our sin… and putting a spear in the devil’s heart! The truth is, nothing ever occurs in the universe that ultimately does not “glorify God!” Nothing! The worst sin ever committed, the cruci-fixion of Christ, purchased your salvation and my salvation! To the praise of God’s glory!!! How can this be!!!? Yet here you and I sit thinking, “How can some sin I commit actually bring glory to God?” How can this possibly be!!!? Well, it all depends on “how grand and glorious your God is in your mind!” If “your sin” is bigger than God is, then you have a very small God. The truth of the matter is, sin is a perplexing enigma in all of our lives; but thanks be to God there will come a day when it will no longer be visible even in our rearview mirror! Eternity awaits us!!! Let me remind you again to read my study on “Sin and Man’s Eternal Purpose.” I have placed it at the end of this study.
If this line of reasoning is a little disconcerting to you, read some books by Steve Brown of “Key Life Ministries.” He’s an 80 year old professor who speaks right to the believer’s heart; there are very few authors as poignant in their writing as this dear brother. Scripture says we are not only conquerors, but that we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us! (Rom 8:37) — only the power of Christ can bring sweetness out of bitterness… strength out of weakness… blessing out of heartbreak… good out of sin… and triumph out of tragedy! In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul proceeded to ransack the universe in search of “something” that might conceivably separate us from God’s love. He found “NOTHING!!!” (Rom 8:35-39). As the psalmist David would say, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me! It is too high! I cannot attain to it!” (Ps 139:6). If you are thinking that your sin separates you from God’s love, you have forgotten the most wonderful truth of all — “God died for your sin! as such, there is now no condemnation for you! Your sin is now a dead corpse! It only awaits its “final burial” on the last day! So as long as you continue to focus on “your own sinfulness,” you will live a defeated Christian life; it is all a matter of having a wrong focus. Focusing on the incredible truth that God really loves you, no matter how sinful or undeserving you are…is the only truth that will set you free and transform your life! And it is the only truth that will empower you to walk uprightly before God, because knowing that God loves you unconditionally, “will cause you to consciously depend upon Him”… conversely, being unsure of His love for you will cause you not to trust Him. (carefully reflect upon that). Picture God with His arm around you, no matter how big of a mess you have made of your life — can you not trust Him? Obviously, all of us would like to be righteous in and of our-selves, and somehow justify God’s love for us… but that possibility does not exist. We must see ourselves for what we really are (totally sinful), and see Christ for what He really is (loving us with a steadfast love that never changes! His arm is always around us!), if we are going to experience His incredible peace and joy. All the while we will each echo Charles Wesley’s refrain, “How Can It Be!?” It is only the “love of Christ” that makes us righteous and accept-able to God! It is only the blood of Christ that eradicates our debt! That is why our salvation in Christ is called “Good News!” Reflect upon the words the eighteenth century American hymn writer Elvina Hall wrote to the troubled soul in “Jesus Paid It All” —
I hear the Savior say, “Thy strength indeed is small!
Child of weakness, watch and pray, find in Me thine all in all.”
Jesus Paid it all, all to Him I owe; sin had left a crimson stain —
He washed it white as snow!
Many believers question God’s love for them, because their lives are filled with pain and difficulties. “How can God let me suffer like this?” they reason. Their “circumstances” become the test of God’s love for them… due to the presence of indwelling sin, that is the “norm” for every believer (Gal 5:17) — pleasant circumstances cause us to feel loved by God, and unpleasant circumstances cause us to question His love, in spite of the fact that Scripture speaks to the contrary. This is a “major hurdle” that every believer has to learn to overcome, and none of us overcome it easily or perfectly. The truth of the matter is this: when we let our circumstances be the measuring stick of God’s love for us, we ignore the purpose of trials in our lives. As believers, we are all in the process of being conformed to the “image of Christ” (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18), but we are not there yet (not even close), and the primary agents God uses to transform us are trials, tribulation and affliction (Rom 5:3-4; Jam 1:2-4; 1 Pet 1:6-7; 4:12-19; 5:10)… it is precisely because God loves us that He subjects us to them (Heb 12:5-11) — painful trials have absolutely nothing to do with God being angry with us or punishing us. The problem for most of us is this: “suffering” often causes us to question His love, rather than confirm it. So it is important for us to remember, if we don’t meditate or reflect upon the fact that God really loves us, we won’t experience it in our hearts — without being conscious of His love and affirming it (that’s faith), it is not possible to be encouraged by it. Every believer needs to “thank God for loving him” at least a dozen times every day to counter the voice of evil!
Because of the presence of indwelling flesh, we are prone to question God’s love for us…so when we stumble in life we are likely to think that God is “frustrated with us” rather than “loves us.” We conclude, “How can God love me when I sin?” The fact is, we judge God by the way we respond — because we don’t respond to “sinful behavior” with kindness and love, we don’t see how God can. Since our “natural response” is to get upset or angry (due to our flesh), we are inclined to think that God’s natural response is to do the same, and it is here where we err. Remember, when we blow it, our flesh is already in the “driver’s seat,” so it immediately takes advantage of its position and presents its case against God, and does all it can to discourage us in our faith… and it generally succeeds for a few minutes, until we get our “faith feet” under us again and get God back on the throne. It is only when we intention-ally meditate upon the fact that God really loves us, and we affirm it over and over again, that God ultimately causes this eternal truth to firmly take “root” in our souls. Because the flesh constantly sends messages into our minds that run contrary to the truth… there is a “war” to be fought… thus we must continually fight the fight of faith! (1 Tim 6:12).
The nineteenth century British missionary, William Hepburn Hewitson (1812-1850), who served on the island of Madeira, Portugal, said Satan works to present God as one who is stern, pitiless, and inexorable… thus men come to think that “self-inflicted suffering” is a way to please Him. The effect is to make the poor sinner unable to realize any comfortable experience of the truth that “God is love,” and to entangle him in vain endeavors to establish a righteousness of his own. “Legalism,” he said, is endemic in the heart of the natural man — to people long bred on the idea that God demands some satisfaction from us by way of works came the truth that salvation is a free gift! bestowed on the guilty wholly on account of divine love! This was the message that brought a “spiritual awakening” in the first cen-tury, the Reformation of Europe, and in the Great Awakening of the Western world. As in all conversions, the explanation lay in the God “who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us” (Eph 2:4 — “Heros” by Iain Murray, The Banner of Trust, 2009, pp. 168-169).
Scripture tells us that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:7-8, 16); it doesn’t say that “we are love,” so God’s natural response is totally unlike ours. He always responds with “love” in all that He does. Though we as believers have been given the capacity to love, because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5; 1 Jn 4:19), we must first “resist the voice of the flesh” in order to love. Love is not a natural response for us… instead it is the “obedient response of faith” that results after saying “no” to the flesh. Furthermore, to “respond in love” as a genuine act of faith, we must see love as more than just “obeying a law;” love is the “fruit” (result) of an intimate walk with Christ (Jn 15:5; Gal 5:22; 1 Cor 13:1-3). Therefore, without living in “conscious fellowship with God” genuine love is not possible — we might do a “loving deed” (like anyone else), but if it is not the work of the Holy Spirit living in us, it is “of us,” “not of God” (Jn 15:4-5; Gal 5:22-23). Here is where so many believers fail — they have simply made their relationship with God primarily one of “behavior,” rather than “walking with Christ.” Remember, Christianity is not a religion, it is a “relationship.” So if you are not cultivating intimacy with Christ, and walking with Him, you have turned your faith into a “religion” — you may be a born again believer, but the presence of God in your life is not dynamic and alive, in the sense that it is “relational” in its orientation… you have turned it into nothing but formality, rules, behavior and beliefs (rather than a loving friendship), and those are two radically different concepts. As such, it is critically important for the Christian to believe that God really loves him — because if he truly believes that, it will totally change the way he lives: “he will live in such a way that he is consciously aware of God’s love for him.” The believer’s relationship with God can’t just be a forensic theological fact… it must be a living, fruitful, experiential reality! Likewise, the Holy Spirit is not just some ethereal, vague godly notion, but a powerful, living force in one’s life… and as such, He will be a continual encouragement to the believer even in the midst of trials and suffering. The following paragraph is tremendously important… that’s why so much of it is “underlined” —
In order for the unconditional love of God to be a dynamic reality in your life, you must “affirm” this reality over and over again (at least a dozen times a day for a month) to get it “rooted” in your heart — because the “voice of the flesh” has had its way far too long for it to quiet down without a fight! — and the devil and the flesh know that “this issue” is the “difference maker!” As long as a believer struggles with this issue, he is going to be a very ineffectual Christian… and to not be conscious that God really loves you is to let Satan and the flesh establish a debilitating stronghold in your life — remember, being conscious of any truth requires “intentionality” — it is only the truth that “God really loves you” that let’s peace and joy reign in your soul. As stated before, “knowing that God really loves you is the ‘only truth’ that will change your life!” Remember, God’s love for you is the only reason you’re even a believer! (Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 3:16; 4:7-10). If God’s love for you is not the cornerstone of your life (and your thinking), then you have become satisfied with “religion” and have pretty much resolved to live your life pretty much by how you “feel” — thus you are essentially focusing on what God does for you (forgives you and blesses you) rather on than Him personally… as such, you are more focused on the gifts rather than the Giver… the benefits rather than the Lover of your soul. Imagine what this would look like in a human relationship where you are more enamored with what the other person does for you, than them personally; how could you call that a loving relationship?
So the eminent question is this: Is the fact that “God loves you” the most important reality in your life? If it is, you will love Him rather than love your own life. The truth is, either you are obsessed with “yourself” or you are obsessed with “Christ”… and to be obsessed with yourself or your own goodness (of which you have none) is “sin;” living for oneself is sin (Mt 16:24-25; Rom 14:8; 1 Cor 15:31; Phil 1:21; 1 Pet 2:24). Remember, the great commandment is to “love God with your entire being,” and that is not possible without knowing that “God loves you!” So God’s love for you is the foundation of your love for Him — “we love [Him] because He first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19; 4:10). It is also important to know that when you truly rejoice in the fact that God loves you, it pleases God tremendously! Why? Because it means “you believe Him!” (Heb 11:6)… in spite of the fact that you have never seen Him! (read Jn 20:29). By the way, is there some reason you don’t believe Him? What could that possibly be? Your sinfulness? God loves you so much He died for you! And no matter how much you screw up in life, He will never stop loving you! Can there be any greater truth than that? Affirm the fact over and over and over again in your mind that “God really loves you!” because your flesh will continue try to convince you otherwise! Our problem as believers is that we really have a difficult time believing that, because we are so undeserving and because the voice of our flesh is so condemning. As believers, we must daily reflect upon the truth that God really loves us, because it is the foundation of our faith.
I have chosen to close this study with the following admonition — for the past few years I’ve been telling people, “The only problem I have is that I sin… other than that I really don’t have any problems.” That statement often elicits a puzzled look on people’s faces, because they don’t quite know how to take it. The truth of the matter is, the only problem any of us have is that “we sin” — even though we all hate the fact that we do sin, that is the reality — remember, that which is not of faith is sin… so not trusting God is sin… thus, the only problem we have is not trusting God. As I look back on my life and my own spiritual journey, I can’t help but wonder why my sin problem was so perplexing to me, and why it took so long to realize the depth of my depravity. Perhaps it is only after “living a lifetime with your flesh” that it manifests itself as such… after all, it is only in living with someone for years that we see the true extent of their weaknesses. The truth of the matter is, “life is a sober teacher” — ask Paul or Peter or any of the great saints of history why it took them so long to come to the realization that the “old man” within was so corrupt and sinful. They all started out so confident, yet it was only after a lot of water passed under the bridge that they were awakened to the reality of the diabolical nature of their flesh. Obviously, each of you will interpret my words “subjectively” — that’s the norm — so let me say this, as you grow older in your faith you will discover a greater awareness of your inherent sinfulness (flesh)… therefore as you continue down the path of life don’t be alarmed by the increasing disgust you have for the “old man” within… it is only after years of living with ourselves, that the true nature of our flesh becomes fully evident to us… up until that time we have a tendency to actually place a fair degree of trust in ourselves… it is not that we don’t believe certain biblical truths when we are younger in the faith, but there is a “depth” to many truths that we can only grasp after years of experience. Let me illustrate this with the truth that “God loves us” — when we first came to faith in Christ the Holy Spirit opened our heart to the reality of God’s love for us… we were mesmerized by it, and rightfully so… but it is only after experiencing God’s forgiveness over and over again, that we realize just how much He really does love us. How do I really know that God’s loves for me is without end? because He has forgiven me over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, etc., etc. etc. How can God just keep on forgiving me? Because He really loves me — unconditionally!!! Though I knew God loved me when He forgave me at salvation, I never knew how much He loved me until I experienced His forgiveness times without end over the years. So we not only know God loves us because the Bible tells us so, but after being forgiven thousands upon thousands of times we know God loves us because we have experienced it!!!
When we apply this principle to the world and our parents love for us… most of us know our parents loved us because they told us they loved us, but if we didn’t “experience” much love from them, sadly, there would have been a strange shallowness to their love. The old adage “actions speak louder than words” is so relevant here — though this isn’t a study on parenting, “the principle of love” is the foremost principle by which you need to parent your children. If you never experienced much love growing up, you should only be too aware of the importance of this principle — whatever you do, never stop showing love to your kids!!! Many theologians tell us that “the image we each have of God was strongly influenced by the image we had / have of our earthly fathers” — if we had a very loving earthly father, it follows that it is much easier to see God as loving… but if we had an earthly father who wasn’t very loving, then no doubt we probably struggle with seeing God as loving… so being raised with really loving parents is extremely helpful in seeing God as truly loving. Obviously God understands the negative impact that all of our experiences have had on us — whatever they may have been — and the resultant affects they may have on our learning to trust Him and believe that He really loves us. Regardless of our upbringing and the scars within, of this we can be sure — God is ever at work in us patiently superintending the course of our lives and transforming us into the image of His Son.
Much of what I have shared with you in this study is the result of a lifetime of learning… and I can’t help but wonder what kind of an impact some of these teachings might have on those of you who are young zealots in ministry. Obviously, it’s not possible to know, because some of the more profound truths of Scripture apparently can only be grasped after you have gotten a lot of miles under your belt. Though every believer can gain an elementary understanding of biblical truths, it is only after “stumbling and crawling over miles of rough terrain in life,” that the depths of those truths really impact our lives spiritually. That is simply what it means to grow in Christ. My prayer is that you will be “open” to these truths even as a young believer (if that be the case), and “revisit them” over and over again on your journey of faith, because there will come a time in your spiritual life when you will experience the dawning of a “new day” in your soul. Remember, sanctification is a process whereby you are slowly transformed into the image of Christ… it is neither fast nor easy… and the journey is one that doesn’t end until we see Jesus.
In truth, I find it strange that some of the more profound truths in this study have basically been ignored in the pulpits of our churches, because these truths clearly describe our spiritual condition. As we learn from Job of old, “Man is born for trouble” (Job 5:7) — i.e., man because of his sinful nature is destined to trouble… that is simply what it means to be human. Think of it, if we didn’t sin we wouldn’t have a problem in the world, because we would always be living “a life of perfect faith and experiencing perfect fellowship and peace with God;” but we can’t even imagine what something like that would be like (because of the influence of the flesh on our thinking). Wouldn’t it be great to never sin, to never do anything wrong, and always experience the fullness of God’s peace, presence and joy? That would be heaven on earth, and we would never desire anything else! contrary to what our flesh thinks! I find it interesting that our flesh actually thinks “heaven is going to be boring” — you can hear it arguing: “How boring, sitting around for all eternity playing a harp and eating grapes and listening to ten hour sermons!” That’s actually quite an amusing argument — and we’ve all heard it in our minds over and over again. By the way, you want to know what “heaven” is going to be like? Read the list of things Randy Alcorn outlines on his website about what Scripture teaches about heaven — www.epm.org/resources/2010/feb/4/what-does-the- bible-say-about-heaven/ — Take note, I find it amazing that none of us (for some strange reason) are anxious to exit this planet — we would all rather hang out here than go to heaven! Why is that? That is simply the reality of indwelling sin in our souls (flesh!). Hey, do you want to go to heaven right now? Why the uncertainty? Aren’t you spiritually ready? or do you just want more earth time? Why? Is there actually some earthly pleasure that you’re going to miss if you should go to heaven? Do you think you are going to have “unfulfilled desires” in heaven? What might they be? Why do you entertain such thoughts? The truth is we suffer here on this planet because that “center of fleshly operations within our soul” is constantly and passionately expressing its lies and its self-centered desires, and we frequently find ourselves being conflicted by them. Beloved, since we have not yet been elevated to “glory,” we must accept the fact that we have to “live with these diabolical thoughts and desires” until our spiritual journey on earth is over. I find it inter-esting that in spite of all the negatives we have to live with here on earth, “none of us seem to be anxious to exit this place” (except the terminally ill – Titus 2:13; 2 Pet 3:12; Rev 22:7, 12, 20). Do you not find that strange? Maybe our faith is a little more shallow than we thought — we all talk a good game when things are going well, but when our world starts to fall apart that’s a completely dif-ferent story — it’s amazing the impact that “circumstances” have on our lives. The bottom line is this: “Can you joyfully & victoriously live with negative circumstances down here on planet earth?” — remember, that’s the life to which we have been called; furthermore, it’s only possible by focusing on Christ and the fact that He really loves us.
Though I was well aware from my youth that “my flesh was frustratingly sinful,” and that “my faith was anything but meritorious,” I never knew just how sinful I was, or how weak and lan-guoring my faith was, until I came face to face with some very debilitating circumstances in my life that really “challenged my faith.” Though it is probably not necessary to expand upon them, it might be helpful to do so for those of you have gone through similar circumstances — first, I had to work thru the process of “forgiving a friend who had betrayed me and ultimately caused me to suffer significant loss” — this was a friend I had helped several times over the years; I had actually gotten him a couple of positions in ministry, and I trusted him implicitly… and that is what made his betrayal so difficult to handle. Obviously my flesh deposited a lot of thoughts in my mind when the betrayal occurred, and that really caused me to struggle with things; perhaps if I had deserved it, it would have been easier to deal with, but since it was not merited, that just added to the pain and made the problem far more difficult to accept. Regardless of what actually happened, I had to learn to deal with all the reper-cussions of it (there were many), including for-giving him unconditionally (in spite of the fact that an apology has never been forthcoming… obviously he is still struggling with his flesh… but he is still a brother in Christ).
Another difficult issue I had to deal with was the loss of nearly everything we owned due to the downturn in our nations economy — we lost our home to foreclosure, both businesses, all three cars, and our life’s savings — we chose to sell most of our belongings and settle with each of our creditors rather than declare bankruptcy (we ended up settling at about thirty cents on the dollar, and that was a long painful process as well). Incidentally, all of this followed a $50,000 loss we suffered seven years earlier — we innocently got involved in a “ponzie investment scheme” along with a number of other people in the church where we were serving; obviously I was as gullible as anyone else. It never entered my mind that it could have been a scam, even though it did sound too good to be true, because so many of our friends had made significant investments in it and encouraged us to do the same. Just for the record, the FBI ultimately got involved, and several people went to prison over this $310 million scam. In spite of the fact that our loss was really significant to us, we seemed to weather that storm fairly easy, probably because so many of us suffered together, and some lost vastly more than we did. The losses we experienced three years ago by comparison, however, were far more significant to us, because they also stripped us of our livelihood and our retirement — and we’re now seventy years old! (just a little humor J ).
Here’s a side note — I found it interesting that losing everything we owned, after a lifetime of having been reasonably faithful in our stewardship, was actually more difficult than I thought it would have been. Hear me out on this — my wife and I never held on to things “too tightly,” because we knew we were simply stewards of everything we had (it all belonged to God), and we really strived to be faithful with everything He had entrusted to us. We lived modestly and rather frugally, and were well aware of the principle that “God gives and God takes away” (Job 1:21). Furthermore, our prayer was that of the psalmist Asaph: “Father, may we not be too rich that we deny You, too poor that we steal” (Prv 30:8-9) — Scripture clearly teaches us that we can all have too much or too little (think about that). None of us are spiritual giants. Incidentally, that is still my prayer. The truth is, when all was said and done, the voice of the flesh caused me to think that we had actually earned some degree of good fortune by our faithfulness and good deeds,” but that proud thinking from beast of hell runs completely contrary to the humble truth that none of us “earn anything” in this life, regardless of our resume or our faithfulness… including those of us in full-time ministry. Though we all struggle with accepting that truth when debilitating conditions occur, that is the reality. History records the stories of a number of God’s choicest servants who struggled with reconciling the “ill-fortune” that befell them late in life… which simply demonstrates the reality of sin’s stubborn presence in every one of our hearts — make no mistake about it, its diabolical presence inhabits each one of us. Remember, no matter what we do or achieve in life, none of us earn a single ounce of special treatment (read Mt 20:1-16); and that runs completely contrary to “human thinking” (the truth is, we are all inclined to argue with the teaching of Jesus in Matt 20). Furthermore, this truth also contradicts the “prosperity doctrine” that is so widely taught in much of the Christian world today — take note, you are in for a rude awakening in life should you ever get to the point where you attempt to “cash in your chips!” J
The reality is, this truth runs counter to the thinking of our flesh; we all like to “connect the dots,” but that is not possible with God at the helm, because “His ways are not our ways” (Is 55:8). It is my understanding that most of God’s servants at some point on their spiritual journey go through a very difficult and humbling time in the furnace of affliction, where their faith is significantly challenged; perhaps it is only in being subjected to the “crucible” that our faith truly comes forth as pure gold. The road of life can be very difficult for every one of us, and the ultimate lesson we must each learn is that of trusting and obeying God… and deferring to His wisdom in all things… and resting securely in the incredible truth that “God loves us and will never leave us or forsake us” (Rom 5:5; Heb 13:5; Mt 28:20). That is the essence of the “faith life.” By the way, no matter what perks or special consideration you demand or expect in life, the sober reality is none of us get special treatment because of something we do. Some of us may enjoy significant perks in life today… most do not… yet the truth is, none of us earned one of them… and should you actually think that you did earn them in some way, your “proud heart” and “lack of humility” will make that evident to you through “your tightfistedness” (cf. Deut 8:18; Lk 12:16-21, 48; 18:18-23; 1 Cor 4:2).
With that said, let me return to my original argument: being the type of person who always asks the “Why?” question (that’s the way God wired me), and always needs to have answers for every-thing, that made these trials difficult for me to reconcile in my mind — especially with an active stubborn flesh constantly presenting its point of view — though being a “why man” is good for doing inductive study, it is very frustrating when dealing with some of life’s negatives (because you’re always looking for answers that logically satisfy you, and more often than not there are none). Back to the subject at hand — despite having to go through betrayal and financial loss, nothing was nearly as challenging for me, however, as that period of time when “God simply turned the lights out in my life;” that’s a spiritual metaphor for “darkness in the soul.” Without a doubt “spiritual darkness” is the most debilitating experience a believer can go through in life. It wasn’t until I studied the “darkness” that so many in Scripture went through, as well as a number of godly saints down through the ages, that my faith finally found that peace and rest that it was desperately seeking. I have done a couple of studies on this subject, and have posted them on my website (if you care to read them). Needless to say, all of these vexing experiences ultimately caused me to “examine my faith” at the deepest level — a level I never thought I would be sub-jected to. If it wasn’t for God’s unceasing faithfulness to me during this period of darkness, no doubt I would have thrown in the towel (though I’m not sure how that would have happened); that is simply the essence of the flesh — but God is greater than our flesh! and He often overrides it! The truth is, God did not allow me to be tested beyond that which I was able to endure (though it clearly felt like it at the time). Though our faith fails all of us at times, the truth is the faithfulness of the Lord never fails us! (Ps 100:5; 119:90; 1 Th 5:24; 2 Th 3:3). Never forget, God is not faithful to us because we are faithful to Him (2 Tim 2:13) — that’s the way we as humans operate. God is faithful to us simply because that is who He is! … it has nothing to do with who we are or anything we do!
God neither withholds kindness from us because of some wrong we commit, nor rewards us with special treatment because of some good we may do, yet that is precisely what most believers think. They live as though this is a kind of mechanical world — that “what goes around comes around in life,” that “life operates by some kind of divine karma,” that “we reap exactly what we sow in this life.” Though there is a degree of truth to that line of reasoning even in the temporal realm, such reasoning is neither clear nor discernible — God in His omniscience runs the world in such a way that “this line of reasoning does not define our world” (read Ps 73; Ps 37:1, 7; Prv 23:17; Jer 12:1). The problem for many of us is, the Old Testament contains a number of passages that state that God does operate this way — God tells the children of Israel in the book of the Law, “If you will diligently obey the LORD your God, you will be blessed exceedingly” (read Deut 28:1-14; Ex 23:22-31; Lev 26:3-13), “but if you do not obey the LORD your God, you shall suffer numerous curses” (read Deut 28:15-68; Lev 26:14-43). The message was clear — obedience brought blessings & prosperity… and disobedience brought poverty & hardship. The blessings promised included preeminence among the nations, material prosperity, fruitfulness, fertility, abundance of crops, victory in battle, and success in international trade… conversely, the curses included scarcity, barrenness, crop failure, pestilence, disease, blight, drought, defeat in battle, madness, fright, adversity, calamity, and powerlessness. What is important here is that the reader remember the “audience” to whom God was speaking — it was the nation of Israel under the Mosaic covenant… not the Church of Christ under the new covenant… so we must be careful not to wrongly apply such teachings to the Christian Church; it is a matter of “rightly dividing the Word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). Under the old covenant, God blessed His people when they obeyed, and manifested His displeasure when they disobeyed — the message to all the nations of the world was this: “God blesses obedience and punishes disobedience,” even if it is His own people, Israel! The message to believers in Christ is this — we experience peace and joy when we walk in righteousness… and anxiety and discouragement when we walk in unrighteousness.
Our problem as believers is that “we insist that God bless us when we do good” (though we’re not too much into His chastening us when we do wrong J) — when we do good we want to be rewarded (not snubbed)… and experience good fortune (not ill fortune), and when God doesn’t respond that way, we have a difficult time reconciling why He doesn’t. This is where all of us as believers at some point expresses disappointment with God — because life isn’t fair! (read Job) — we do right and we lose? Due to our flesh, we all have a tendency to question God when life goes south on us (in particular when it is not deserved)… and when it does, frequently an “emotional distance” sets in between us and God, and it is at this point that Satan takes advantage of our condition. So “insisting on connecting the dots” often leads us into enemy territory. Consider this — if we actually lived in a world that operated in such fashion, we would all then be able to manipulate things to get what we want out of life. All we would have to do is “play by the rules” and “make life work the way we want it to work!” Regrettably, that is basically how most believers live, and when things don’t go as planned it discourages them… nevertheless, God lovingly and patiently continues to do a “faith building work” in them, fully understanding the shortsightedness with which they live life as His children. Dearly beloved, “we see now as through a glass darkly” (our vision is seriously impaired), “but there will come a day when we shall see Him face to face! We know now in part, but then we shall know Him fully, just as we have been fully known!” (1 Cor 13:12)… so let us humbly bow in reverence before God, and joyfully accept His wise bestowment… remembering that “He gives to us what He deems best; lovingly, it’s part of pain and pleasure, mingling toil with peace and rest” (Hymn “Day by Day” by Carolina Sandell Berg).
The problem with simply “living by a set of rules,” is that life would no longer be about Christ, instead it would be about us! and trying to make life work for us… and in very short order we would all figure out exactly how things operate (the genius of man!)… and such a world would simply make our faith a “mechanical faith” where all we would need to do is do the right things (push the right buttons) to get what we want (much like the old “Skinner Box” method of training animals). The problem with that approach to life is that it turns God into some kind of “celestial vending machine,” and that is not who God is; make no mistake about it, God will not be “used” in such fashion. Remember, life is all about “God and His will,” not us and our will (Mt 26:39; Jn 6:38). You need to know, eventually there will come a time in your life (if it has not already occurred), when you are going to have to “let God be GOD in a very important matter in your life,” and not insist on “having things go the way you want them to go;” and that is going to be a very challenging experience for you, because you are going have to “die to self and what you want, and embrace God’s agenda and what He wants” (Mt 26: 39). Let me restate that: if you are truly a believer, ultimately, God will take you down this road at some point on your spiritual journey — no child of God gets an exemption or some special treatment in life… after all, that wouldn’t be fair, would it? J (cf. Acts 10:34; Rom 2:11; Eph 6:9; Heb 12:4-11).
In a related matter, I find it interesting that many believers here in the West tend to interpret some passages in ways that are more in line with what they want them to say, than what they actually say. For instance, the apostle Paul tells us to “give thanks in everything” (en in Greek; 1 Th 5:18), and “give thanks for everything” (huper in Greek; Eph 5:20). Most Christians in America believe in being thankful “in all situations,” but not necessarily “for all situations;” thus they believe both passages essentially say the same thing — “being grateful in all situations;” that is, regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, that should not cause us to take our eyes off of Christ… we can still have a grateful heart toward Him for loving us. Though that is true, that interpretation does not address the problem of a “negative circumstance” in one’s life… thus the implication is that trials themselves can actually be disliked or despised, but that does not align with what the fullness of Scripture teaches. To somehow suggest that one can be “ungrateful” for a situation, while at the same time be “grateful” that God is still providentially working in their life clashes with logic… furthermore, it is through trials that God does His transforming work in our lives. The question that begs asking is this — “Why do some Christians insist on disassociating ‘painful circumstances’ (regardless of what they are) from God, as if they are in some way evil in nature?” To ultimately hold such a position actually permits the believer to then be “ungrateful” for his lot in life — be it his poor position, his financial situation, his poor health, his physical appearance, his dysfunctional family, his infirmities, his weaknesses, the injustices he experiences, the weeds growing in his garden, the increase in his property tax, the barking dog in the middle of the night, the flat tire he got that morning, and the eviction notice he received from his landlord — additionally, those who hold such a position have to conclude that all such circumstances are simply a part of living in this fallen world (a position many believers hold, because they simply don’t see how a loving God can be responsible for negative situations)… and if that is the case, then they obviously don’t believe that God oversees the events of life… instead they believe that every circumstance in life is simply a matter of happenstance (of no particular purpose)… thus you can hear God saying to the poor soul who cries out to Him — “I’m so sorry, you just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; I know I could have done something to keep those things from happening, but in doing so I would have violated the laws I set in motion at creation, and I just couldn’t do that because I took that option off the table.” If that is really the God you worship, you need to know such thinking does not coincide with what Scripture teaches, nor does it equate with the way God operated throughout biblical history. Furthermore, that position is in direct conflict with being “thankful in all situations” — Why? because God would not be superintending or giving oversight to the events of your life, and if that is not the case, then exactly what is it that God would be doing when you are going through a trial to elicit gratitude from you?
Ultimately the issue before us is one of “gratitude,” with the understanding that our trials have been given to us (or permitted) by God to accomplish His eternal purposes in our lives — the idea that trials are “given to us” literally means that it is by grace that God gives them to us. Paul said to the Philippians, “It has been granted (that’s the same word as grace) for Christ’s sake, to not only believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Phil 1:29; cf. Acts 27:24; 1 Cor 10:13; Jam 1:2-3; 1 Pet 1:6; 4:12; 5:10). Did you hear that? We “suffer” for Christ’s sake because of His grace… that is, we go thru “painful trials” because of God’s grace. Why? because trials [by God’s grace] have a trans-formational purpose in our lives. God does not subject us to trials for no reason — they are the means whereby God transforms us into the image of Christ. If trials were mere happenstance, there would be no reason for them (no divine purpose for them); and if that is the case then there would be no reason for us to be grateful for them. Since trials, however, are given to us by God’s grace to make us like Christ, should we not then be “grateful” for them? as opposed to being “ungrateful” for them? Thus, if everything we experience in life is the result of God’s grace — understanding that God only permits things for our eternal good — do we not then thank Him for everything? both that which is pleasant and unpleasant? or do we selectively choose what we will be thankful for? The problem most believers have is that of equating “pain” with “good” — because pain is so undesirable, they reason, how can it be good? — thus the two concepts are completely antithetical in their minds (due to the flesh). It is this kind of logic that leads one to believe that only those things that “feel good” are good… which gives rise to the hedonistic philosophy that rules Western society today: “If it feels good, do it!” (and we all know where that leads). By the way, if you argue against “physical pain,” then you will ultimately argue against “circum-tantial pain,” “emotional pain” and “spiritual pain,” and every other kind of pain — after all, how can anything that “hurts us” actually be “good”? Thus the flesh argues — “pain is for sadists and masochists!” The truth is, it is “only by faith in the truth of God’s Word” that we can overcome such logic… and we do so “believing that faith in God’s Word is reasonable!” (Jam 3:17; Heb 11:1-3; Rom 1:17) — remember, faith involves a war in the soul regarding what is “true!”
Though it is obviously difficult to apply the “all things” to every blatant act of evil that one can imagine, the biblical record does suggest that “all things” does indeed mean “everything.” In the most painful of circumstances that we go through in life, we are to get to that point where we “gratefully accept them”… and praise God for the grace to do so… and then thank Him for His loving providence by which He will turn that difficult situation into a good purpose in our lives. As believers, we can confidently live life with the assurance that “God will ultimately cause all things to work together for our good” (Rom 8:28), even though we may not understand how that is possible. The truth of the matter is, God has willed that we praise Him for all things; no matter how painful or negative the issue may be, we are to gratefully accept it, because ultimately it was dispensed by or permitted by God for our eternal good. Though we can each think of scenarios that are seemingly “out of bounds” (too evil to be included), Scripture identifies some extremely difficult situations that might cause us to rethink that position. The “cross of Christ” was the most abominable sin ever committed, yet it purchased your salvation and my salvation — are we not grateful for it? Yet some believers try to separate the diabolical crime itself from the redemption that resulted! Why is that? Consider the life of Joseph — he was sold into slavery by his brothers; it is hard to imagine going through a more difficult circumstance than what he went through… nearly everything in his life was taken from him — family, friends, home, possessions, language, culture and country — yet he responded to his brothers saying: “YOU meant it for evil against me, but GOD meant it for good” (cf. Gen 50:20). During his time in Egypt, Joseph was also falsely accused and suffered imprisonment. God obviously had a purpose for allowing Joseph to go through all of the excruciating ordeals that he did (just as He did with Job… and you and me). Scripture tells us that God meant it for good, and that it wasn’t punishment for some sin that he had committed (cf. Job 1:1) — remember, God never punishes His children; He chastens them to correct them, but He never punishes them (punishment is for unbelievers, not believers — Christ bore all our punishment at calvary!). In spite of all the difficult circumstances that Joseph went through in life, he knew that the GOD of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (his father) was ultimately in control of all things, regardless of what the world or man had done to him… so he gratefully accepted everything that happened to him — though, no doubt like you and me, he struggled in arriving at that position (being human he obviously had to battle with his indwelling flesh).
For Joseph to have not accepted his plight in life would have [naturally] left him bitter, angry and vengeful… and that would have been the result if GOD had not been at the center of his life and thinking. When we remove GOD from our circumstances, that’s when we get into trouble spiritually… conversely, when we keep GOD at the center of our thinking, that’s when we live joyfully and victoriously — the fact is, either “God” is superintending the events of our lives, or “chance” is the explanation for all things. The Spirit-filled believer sees God’s wise and loving care in all of life’s difficulties and trials, and not just in the blessings and successes. Furthermore, a grumbling spirit is incompatible with the Holy Spirit — grumbling was one of the besetting sins of the children of Israel; they continually murmured against the Lord and Moses — Why? because they didn’t like the conditions under which they were living — they weren’t pleasant. The spiritual believer is full of thanksgiving; whereas the carnal believer is full of complaining (because of the domin-ance of his flesh) — he simply cannot accept the fact that pain has a good side to it. The spiritual man is able to thank God for the negative conditions he goes through in life, because he recognizes there is “good” in them — as such, he can accept financial collapse, trials of all sorts, unemployment, infirmities, weaknesses, low position, even the death of a loved one… and can say with Job — “Shall we only accept what is good from God, and not accept adversity? The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21; 2:10). Carefully reflect upon Job’s words, and remember he spoke those words after suffering several significant losses — he lost 1000 oxen, 500 donkeys, 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, nearly all of his servants were killed (hundreds?), and all of his sons & daughters were killed… and following that, he was smitten with painful boils from the bottom of his feet to the top of his head. So great was his misery that even his wife urged him to “Curse God and die!” It is impossible to imagine the incredible suffering that he went through — when I think of how much Job suffered, it’s embarrassing to think how little I suffered and how dreadful my response was. Admittedly, being grateful in the midst of adversity does not come without a struggle, but afterwards it yields an incredible peace that God Himself plants in the soul (cf. Phil 4:6-7; Heb 12:11) — by the way, only GOD can give us “peace” when our lives are turned upside down. Obviously without diligently and prayerfully working through the process of being humbly grateful, our heart will naturally remain bitter and angry; the choice is ours. Let me say it again: getting to the point where you have a grateful heart is not easy — it involves a fight of faith! — and without fighting this fight, there will be no gratitude and no peace! The problem all of us have is “fighting the fight!” — though we all desperately want to win the war in our soul, none of us have a penchant for fighting! (because of the presence of indwelling sin). The reality is, we have to button down the hatches, put on our spiritual armor, and go to war!
Consider the following: do we simply give thanks to God only for that which is fair and just and to our liking? only for positive things in our lives, and not negative things? Should you one day suffer the loss of your entire estate, how would you respond to that? Would you not ask God for the grace to have a “grateful heart and accept it” (by the power of the Holy Spirit)… or would you simply become “angry and bitter” because life was very unfair to you, and question why God found such action so necessary? I fully understand that some of you really struggle with Joseph’s words, “God meant it for good” — but that ultimately is the reality. So rather than immediately jumping into the world of human reason when smitten with negatives, spend some time getting a little counsel from the One who made you. Should you choose to be ungrateful for some particular trial you will never be released from the disquieting emotional bondage of your flesh… thus, you will never experience the liberation and peace and joy that God wants to place in your soul (by the Holy Spirit). In short, God wants you to surrender your heart to His eternal wisdom when the most painful realities in life occur. By accepting difficult circumstances with gratitude, God’s Spirit pours out a measure of grace upon our lives, and gives us a peace that surpasses human understanding (Phil 4:6-7). Obviously none of us have answers to all the “why” questions that life serves up, but all of us by the power of the Holy Spirit can overcome every situation that life has to offer. The fact of the matter is, “at some point God will test you in the hallowed ground of your soul,” to gain a level of trust from you that up until that point He had not yet received from you (cf. Gen 22:1-2ff), and such a work can only be done in the furnace of affliction (God’s crucible). It is important to note, we all go through a crucible experience in life — and we all go through it alone (just us and God). Always be mindful of the fact that the ultimate goal in every circumstance of life is the glory of God (i.e., that God’s goodness and greatness might be revealed in and through us)… not our glory (we have none)… and the means of giving God glory is “thanksgiving!” To glorify God is to praise Him no matter how painful the experience may be… how significant the loss may be… or how ignorant we may be about what God is doing. It is simply a matter of being “confident” (that’s faith) that God is doing a gracious work in our lives (Phil 2:13; Heb 11:1).
In applying the foregoing to my own life and the various adversities I went through, it was only when I came to that point where I was actually “grateful and thankful” for them, that I was finally able to “really accept them” (where they no longer continued to hammer away at my soul) and experience a deep abiding peace and joy. Until I genuinely accepted them and was grateful for them, my heart simply remained anxious and emotionally frustrated. In order to finally arrive at that place where my heart was truly grateful, I had to spend a lot of time dialoguing with God… and there isn’t an issue you can think of that I didn’t discuss with Him. Obviously, when our heart is full of pain, we have to discuss that pain with God… He knows the “pain” that we are experiencing, and the angst in our soul, and how difficult it is to surrender it to Him; yet it is a process that we must all go through, and in the end God will give us His peace and the grace to accept it. I happen to communicate best with God when I walk… since I needed to do a lot of talking with God, I did a lot of walking (I still do) and I probably spend half the time discuss-ing with God what His Word says (Job 13:15), and half the time affirming some truth He’s already taught me. Regarding the principle of gratitude — if you are not “grateful” for something, you are obviously “ungrateful” for it (there’s no middle ground; simply tolerating a matter is nothing but “biting your tongue”); a spirit of ungratefulness results in a disquieted and anxious heart…so the healing process is one of going from a position of being ungrateful to a position of being grateful, and that’s not an easy transition.
For me, it was a matter of getting to the point where I could honestly tell God that I was now okay with the issue that was troubling me, and that I was now grateful for it. Essentially, my dialogue with God went something like this: “God, I am now really okay with this situation… thank You for giving me the grace to accept it and be grateful for it… and for the grace to no longer be troubled and perplexed by it in my heart… and should You choose to leave things as they are in my life, I’m okay with that as well… above everything, Lord, I truly want Your will in my life… thank You for this painful trial and for the quieting peace you have placed in my heart.” When all was said and done, that was my prayer — it was not just a matter of coming to the point where I could “tolerate” the injustice (or whatever the issue was), I knew I had to come to the point where I was actually “grateful and thankful for it” (where negative emotions no longer dominated my soul) — and this happened because I was truly confident (had faith) in the fact that God was using this trial in my life for His higher purposes. When we really know that “pain” is truly doing a good work in our lives (that it is truly beneficial for us), then and only then can we accept the issue and be grateful for it. Think of it this way — if a “painful operation” was actually going to save your life, would you not be “grateful” for it? or would the pain of the surgery still make you angry? Beloved, those are the options. By the way, if you are a “bite your tongue Christian,” that is, you do everything in your power to tolerate your trials with a smile — as if that is the “faith response” that God is seeking — that is vastly different from being grateful for a trial. Sadly, “bite your tongue Christianity” is fairly common among believers today.
No one is saying that trials are “fun,” or that in some morbid way they actually “feel good” — that’s nonsense — pain never feels good! The bottom line is: “pain” has redeeming value in God’s economy! (did you hear that?) “pain” is absolutely essential for experiencing “the good” God wants to do in your life! (making you like Christ). There is no such thing as “pain-less spiritual surgery!” no Spiritual Novocain! and no Spiritual Sodium Penathal! Furthermore, spiritual surgery can only be accomplished in your life when you are awake — because you have to be a faithful participant in it! To insist that there be “another way,” is to let your flesh (not God) dictate policy in your life. There is simply “no other way.” If you are convinced there is, you will not be grateful for trials when they come — instead they will simply be a frustrating agitation in your life. Take a moment and consider how Jesus felt about the “cross” and the “incredible pain” that He went through — do you actually think that Jesus in some way was not grateful for it? that He was not grateful for the opportunity to suffer for us? or do you think He was only grateful for what it would accomplish? that somehow He was able to separate the pain of the cross from the redeeming value of it? If that is your position, what do you think His attitude was toward the pain of the cross? one of displeasure? anger? disgust? nothing but negative feelings? or do you think there was actually a sense of joy in it all because He was suffering in our stead? The truth is, “Jesus bore our pain!” Imagine, if you will, suffering incredible pain for your own child, knowing that it was the “only thing” that could save their life — would you not be grateful for the fact that you could actually suffer for them in some redemptive way? Regarding Christ, we can’t disassociate the pain of the cross from the salvation that it produced — if there was “no pain or suffering” in the cross, then what would have been the “sacrifice” that Jesus made on our behalf? (Mt 27:46, 50; Heb 2:9; 12:2; 1 Pet 2:24; 4:1; 1 Jn 3:16). It is precisely because the cross cost Christ so much (His life!) that it accomplished so much. Conversely, we can’t disassociate the pain of a trial (spiritual surgery) from the consequences of a trial (Christlikeness), as if they are two separate things — they are intrinsically related — no pain, no growth!
By definition “trials are painful circumstances” — and it is because they are painful that they are an extremely effective instrument that God uses to change us! If trials were not painful, there would be no motivation in us whatsoever to handle them correctly; so it is the pain of a trial that makes it effective. Take note, separating trials and pain is like separating the pain of childbirth from childbirth… separating being over-weight from eating too much… separating a speeding ticket from driving too fast… separating credit card debt from spending too much — to do so is nonsensical, because the issues are intrinsically related. It is just such a problem that characterizes so much of Christian thinking in America today — many believers actually try to separate God from anything negative (pain, disease, suffering, death, sin, damnation), in order to make God more acceptable in their minds; simply because they can’t reconcile how a God of love can also be a God of pain — after all, “what kind of a loving God would ever cause people to suffer or send people to hell for all eternity? Surely not our God!” That’s the philosophical argument of Christian universalists — they actually think every human being will ultimately go to heaven, because a God of love would never send a person to hell!” (they also reject the teaching that people actually send themselves to hell). Believers need to stop making “human logic” the end all, and start making “divine logic” the final word. The problem with many in the Christian world today is that they are not willing to prayerfully study the Word and ask God for His wisdom on such matters — when we pray for the mind of Christ and His wisdom and humbly accept what He has to say about them, we then experience a corresponding peace and joy in our soul, and the arguing, fighting spirit within is subdued. Remember, our flesh doesn’t like divine truth (Rom 8:7).
Consider this: if we didn’t experience “pain in our soul when we sin,” we would never turn from it because the pleasure of it would simply be too much to resist. It is the “bite of sin” in conjunc-tion with the Holy Spirit that causes us to turn from sin (cf. Ps 32:3-5; Rom 8:6; Gal 6:8)… so ultimately it is a “pain” for which we should be tremendously grateful. Since Jesus bore the “pain” of all our sin, the cross was exceedingly painful… and just as we are grateful for Christ’s willingness to bear the excruciating penalty for our sin, we are also grateful for the pain we experience when we sin (because it causes us to turn to Christ, our Redeemer). In like manner, Jesus was grateful for the pain of the cross, because it actually paid the price that was necessary to redeem us — crucifixion and separation from the Father! So it behooves you and me to embrace the reality of trials for what they really are: painful circumstances that God uses to transform us into the image of His Son! Keep in mind, we all have our crosses to bear in this life. It might also be help-ful to look at each one of our trials as “painful reminders” of how much Christ suffered for us; though we are “by no means helping atone for our sins” (Christ paid that debt in full at the cross), some of our sufferings as believers are actually “filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (cf. Col 1:24; Rom 8:17, 36; 2 Cor 1:5; Phil 3:10; 2 Tim 1:8; 2:10; 1 Pet 4:13)… anytime we suffer for Christ or His Church or His righteousness, in some mysterious way we are actually filling up that which is lacking in His afflictions — the truth is, “Christ is afflicted in all His people’s afflictions” (Is 63:9; Acts 9:4-5; 1 Cor 12:26); with that in mind, it might be helpful to remember that some 43 million Christians have been martyred for their faith since the first century. Beloved, count it a great honor every time you suffer for Christ, His people, or His righteousness. Again, let me remind you to read my study on “Sin & Man’s Eternal Purpose” — it provides an extremely important perspective on this point.
The number one problem believers have is that they struggle and argue with the truth (because of their flesh – Rom 8:7); that’s why we must “fight the fight of faith! fight the fight of believing God’s Word!” (1 Tim 6:12) — doing so successfully counters the arguments of the flesh. I find it interesting that nearly all of the famous atheists down through the annals of history were raised in Christian homes, and that it was some “painful experience” that ultimately caused most of them to reject the reality of God. Their humanistic theology simply had no room for the redemptive value of pain — they had believed that God was simply a warm, kind, lovable deity, who only did positive things in their life (from a human perspective)… as such, their theology simply had no basis in reality. Though it is not uncommon for genuine believers to become angry and disgruntled with God when life becomes overly painful and seemingly unfair, very few of them completely turn their back on God. Healthy Christians see trials as “life-transforming incidents,” and they go through the process of gratefully accepting them because they understand that trials have a God-ordained purpose in their lives; conversely, unhealthy Christians have not made “spiritual transformation” a high priority item in their life (they wish it was, but they don’t take steps to do make it so), thus they simply see trials as painful, frustrating agitations. Here’s the principle — if having a “strong faith” is a high pri-ority item in your life, you will work at being grateful for the trials that come your way; should you choose to not be grateful for them, you will continue to have a “weak faith.” This is one of the “spiritual crossroads” that all believers must encounter.
John MacArthur, in his commentary on Ephesians, says — “The only person who can genuinely give thanks for all things is the humble person, the person who knows he deserves nothing and who therefore gives thanks for even the smallest things. Lack of thankfulness comes from pride, from the conviction that we deserve something better than we have” (Moody Press, 1986, p. 267). Not being thankful is the essence of the “unregenerate heart” (Rom 1:21), but when God “regenerates” an individual, He places a new heart in him that longs to honor and glorify God in all of life (1 Th 5:18). Regardless of the situation in which we find ourselves, we are to give thanks to God (Acts 5:41; Jam 1:2-3; 1 Pet 1:6-9); remember, God is superintending everything in our lives, and it is all “for our eternal good!” Thus thankful-ness is to be a part of the very fabric of our lives (Ps 136:1-3; Dan 6:10; Eph 5:20; Col 3:17; Heb 13:15). Even in times of great anxiety, fear, worry, and stress, a prayerful attitude of thanksgiving is to characterize our hearts (Phil 4:6-7). Being thankful acknowledges that everything in life is from the gracious hand of God (even those things that do not seem good — remember, God never does bad things to His children). It is our proud diabolical flesh that tries to convince us that our circumstances are not as good as we deserve — essentially that’s the line Adam and Eve bought into. The only cure for a proud heart is “humility” (dying to self and the flesh). Always keep in mind, God didn’t make us for ourselves — He made us for Himself (Rom 11:36; 1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:16; Heb 2:10). Obviously the created doesn’t dictate reality to the Creator. As crazy as that logic may seem to you, that is the position our flesh takes — “I am going to run my own life!” The fleshly mind actually thinks it has autonomy! that it is its own supreme ruler! Just because God graciously gave us a “brain” and the ability to “make choices,” doesn’t mean we are autonomous creatures! Yet that is precisely what the flesh thinks! The truth is, when we abandon our autonomous thinking, we will stop living for ourselves and put Christ back in his rightful place as the preeminent One! Humility dethrones self and enthrones Christ!
It was only when I read about “the darkness” that Martin Luther and other saints went through on their spiritual journeys, that I came to better understand the pain and the darkness that I had experienced. In particular, it was “the writings of some godly Puritans” that God used to really encourage my heart. I will forever be indebted to them for their lack of pretense, and their trans-parency and honesty in dealing with the toughest issues of life — sadly, that level of transparency is not the norm in the American Church today… it is a rare exception rather than the rule. The problem with most people is that they like to “sugar-coat” things to make them more acceptable and tolerable, to simply share the “positive side” of things and not the “negative side” when it comes to spiritual issues (Mt 10: 38; Mk 8:34; Lk 14:26-35; Jn 12:24-26; Rom 6:3-11; 7:18; 8:17; Phil 1:29; Jam 1:2-3; 1 Pet 1:6-7; 2:24; 4:1, 12, 17-18; 5:8-10). That seemed to be the philosophical approach that many minis-tries took during the 20th century, and either because of ignorance or myopic vision they actually ended up keeping most believers in a degree of bondage. Remember, only “truth” sets a person free! In the early years of my ministry, I found it strange that believers in countries who were undergoing severe persecution, expressed puzzlement at the church in America because it was so unlike theirs — they felt the American church was simply too comfortable, too fat, and too rich… as such, they didn’t think our faith was a “dynamic faith” that fully depended upon God, and they believed the reason for that was “we simply didn’t need God that much” — in hindsight, that was a very insightful observation (though I didn’t know it at the time). The truth is, the faith we commonly preach in the West is actually a very shallow faith — though it is true to a degree, it is only partially true… our faith is “a warm, positive, feel good, materialistic, enjoy life here and now, and live happily ever-after kind of faith” — essentially it is a faith that is “this worldly,” a faith that basically “helps us navigate through life in this world.” Once again, you can hear the flesh arguing — “God wants us happy, right?” That’s American Christianity! but that’s not quite what the New Testament teaches. Nevertheless, like all of my colleagues (or so I think), I bought into it like they did (no doubt ignorantly and innocently)… ultimately, however, I found it to be a very weak faith when it was subjected to “God’s crucible” (Ps 66:10; Is 48:10; 1 Pet 1:6-7; 4:12-13; 5:10); which is the reason God subjects us to “the furnace of affliction” in the first place; it’s a faith test.
So after carefully studying what the Scriptures have to say about “the believer’s sinful flesh,” I had to rethink my faith, and either “concur with what it teaches,” or choose to continue living with a “shallow quasi kind of faith” to which I had grown [frustratingly] accustomed. It was the apostle Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans that had the biggest impact on my thinking — “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not” (Rom 7:18). Though I had not embraced a decadent lifestyle, neither had I genuinely affirmed the truths of Scripture as it pertains to my true condition… as such, my faith was simply a shallow, weak, quasi kind of faith. I did a study on this subject called, “The Game Changer!” — you can find it on my website: www.TheTransformedSoul.com I would also encourage you again to read “Sin & Man’s Eternal Purpose,” as well as the “Introduction” to my book “Soul Transformation” on that same website; it details the reasons why I wrote the book.
Throughout this study you have been reading, I emphasized the need to “accept” the spiritual realities Scripture teaches… because it is only by truly accepting them that we really believe them, and it is only by “really believing them” that we are “liberated by them,” and that they “transform our lives” — note the progression. One of the foundation stones we truly need to believe about ourselves is that “there is nothing good in our flesh” — absolutely nothing. As believers, we all know “we are sinful and that we sin a lot,” but not many of us are convinced of the absolute, diabolical nature of our flesh — there is nothing good in it! it is nothing but a diabolical deception! yet for some strange reason we continue to live life as though we are actually pretty good (i.e., our flesh); many of us basically conclude that “others might be really sinful, but we’re not; in fact, others actually think we’re pretty good!” If that kind of thinking is in your wheel-house, you need to do a 180 — because you’re going south, not north! Scripture teaches us that “truth sets us free,” so we must accept what Scripture has to say about us or we will not experience the liberation Christ died to give us. It is only by accepting the truth about ourselves (we are totally sinful), and the truth about God (He loves us unconditionally) that we will experience a genuine transformation in our soul. Without fully accepting these two truths (not at just a cursory level) a Christian can only live an uninspired, joyless life (do the math)… it doesn’t mean that they are not a believer, but without fully accepting these two truths they cannot be a happy or joyful Christian; it is simply not possible. This is what “Scripture” teaches. The problem with most believers is that they simply emphasize one of these two truths — if you simply believe that God loves you unconditionally, you’ll end up being a “delusional licentious Christian” (such a person believes God ultimately overlooks his sin as long as he doesn’t go off the deep end; and this person never adequately deals with his sin problem)… on the other hand, if you simply believe that you are a sinful wreck, you’ll end up being a “miserable legalistic Christian” (because your sinfulness will overwhelm you). It is essential that a believer embrace both truths. An unbeliever can live with untruth and not be too troubled by it, but a believer cannot (because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in his life).
It is also important for us to know, that if we are to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, we must have a “conscious sense of dependence on Christ”… and that happens through the “discipline of prayer,” because prayer is the tangible expression of our depend-ence (read my study on “Growing in Grace & Faith”). The author of Psalm 119 teaches us about the discipline of prayer — twenty-two times he prays to God to “help him” obey His law. Here are just a few:
~Teach me Thy statutes (v. 26)
~Make me understand the way of Thy precepts (v. 27)
~Strengthen me according to Thy word (v. 28)
~Teach me, O Lord, the way of Thy statutes (v. 33)
~Give me understanding that I may observe Thy law (v. 34)
~Make me walk in the path of Thy commandments (v. 35)
~Incline my heart to Thy testimonies (v. 36)
~Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity (v. 37)
~Revive me through Thy righteousness (v. 40)
Though the author of Psalm 119 was ardent in his desire to obey God’s Law, he recognized his need of God to help him do so. He knew he didn’t have the strength within himself, so he knew God would have to provide that strength for him (Eph 6:10; Phil 4:13). In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3) — the idea behind the word “poor” is that of having absolutely no resources whatsoever; all the truly poor man can do is hold out his hand and beg (he is “beggarly poor”), and that describes all of us spiritually (we all come before God as “destitute spiritual beggars” in complete need of His help), and when we come before Him in humility with our hands empty — He fills them to over-flowing! Earnest prayer for “divine enablement” is essential for all of us if we are to walk in righteousness before God (Eph 1:18-19; 3:14-21; Col 1:9-12; Jam 5:16). None of us have been endowed with a reservoir of strength from which to draw (contrary to what some may think)… it is only by “trusting God and walking by the Spirit” that we are able to walk uprightly before Him (Eph 4: 1; 3:16; Gal 5:16; Eph 2:10; Col 1:10-11; Rom 12:1; Jn 15:5). Remember, God graciously gives us the strength to do all things “through Christ” (Phil 4:13); so “intimate communion with Christ” is the key.
King David provides believers with a powerful reminder of their inherent weaknesses, and the wonder of God’s grace and love to “quicken them” even in the darkest of times. He says in the 143rd Psalm — “Quicken me, O Lord, for Your name’s sake; for Your righteousness sake, bring my soul out of trouble” (143:11). As the 19th century pastor of London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle (where Charles Spurgeon would later become pastor) James Smith (1802-1862) said, “The soul that has been once quickened, often feels its need of being quickened again.” Like you and me, David often prayed for this blessing. He knew what it was to be overwhelmed, and have his heart desolate within him; as such, he looked up and sought help from Heaven. He cried with fervor and pleaded with earnestness… he entreated for his life and sought deliverance from his enemies, as well as instruction in God’s ways, and a renewed sense of God’s loving-kindness. David’s soul was troubled, as all of ours are at times, though some more than others. Our faith is feeble and our unbelief strong; at times we don’t seem to be able to get a grip on God’s promises or appropriate them to ourselves… we look on them with longing eyes… but we cannot draw from them the comfort we need. Obviously, Satan comes with his temptations in an effort to draw us from the Lord, and lead us to doubt and fear — if he can divert our minds from the glorious gospel, he can soon bring us into bondage, if not into open sin… then darkness spreads over our soul and a chill and gloom seizes our spirit… and we then feel a deadness in reference to all that is holy… the Word of God fails to make a sweet impression or offer us any refreshment… and the throne of grace loses all its attractions. We try to pray, but the most we can do is sigh and groan. Deadness of soul is a debilitating condition. To be surrounded with spiritual food, and not have an appetite to enjoy it is bewildering — to be loaded with privileges, yet feel neither life nor comfort from them is frustrating. Writes James Smith, “It is at this point that the hidden evils of the heart, the concealed corruptions that lie embedded deep in the soul, begin to rise, rage and roar! Such foul, filthy, and unmentionable corruptions are discovered. These terrify and alarm us, while Satan suggests that it is impossible for God ever to dwell in such a vile heart… or for Christ to love and nourish one so corrupt. It is at this point that the soul is like the troubled sea — it finds no rest; just tossing, trembling, doubting, fearing, sinking, sighing, and groaning.” (I retrieved these quotes by “James Smith” from my own files, but didn’t have access to their specific bibliographic references).
Smith inquires of us: “Do you know anything of this? Many of the Lord’s people do. Some, who appear to others to have a very smooth path, because all without appears to be prosperous — suffer a martyrdom within. It is a difficult road along which many of God’s flock travel, but all do not sink so deep in the mire, or pass through such miry roads, as David did.” The psalmist prayed, “LORD, Quicken me!” Only the Holy Spirit can quicken us — He gave us life at first, and He is the one who must renew us again and again. Just as God in nature renews the face of the earth in spring, so the Holy Spirit renews the souls of the God’s tried and troubled people. “Bring my soul out of trouble!” was David’s cry. We can get ourselves into trouble, but only the Lord can bring us out of trouble… and this He does in His own way… and in His own time. In the 143rd Psalm, David used two pleas to God, two reasons why God should act —
First, “For Your name’s sake” — i.e., because You Lord are gracious, merciful, long-suffering, and abound in lovingkindness, goodness and truth; and because it is Your desire to be known as such. David here was praying, “For the sake of Your own glory, show Yourself to be the God of loving-kindness and power which You are esteemed to be, that my soul might praise Your name (Ps 23:3; 25:11; 31:3); for the sake of the honor of Your name, that it might be honored by others, may it please you to quicken and deliver me and deal graciously and bountifully with me!” (Ps 25:15; 34:17; 138:7; 142:7). Likewise, we are also to plead the name of Jesus, and pray that for His sake, on account of who He is and what He has done and suffered for us, that we might be renewed, and that He might be praised. The prayers of most believers lack this perspective — most often they simply ask God to do something “for their sake and what they have done”… rather than “for Christ’s sake and what He has done” (Ps 127:1; Jn 15:5; 1 Cor 3:6). Think about that. Asking God to do something “for His sake” or “for His Name’s sake,” essentially is a direct equivalent of asking God to do something “in Jesus Name — for Jesus sake” (Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23). Remember, God’s will (not our will) needs to be the “primary reason” for any request (Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23). It should be noted, to ask for something in Jesus Name is not simply to insert His Name at the end of a prayer — it is to ask in accordance with His mind and His will (Mt 26:39, 42; Jn 6:38), and it is to ask for those things which will glorify God, bless mankind, and are for our own spiritual good. Furthermore, in order to ask in Christ’s Name, we must live in close fellowship with Him, other-wise we would have no inclination of His attitude… and the closer we are to Him, the more our desires will be the same as His desires… so when we live in the center of His will, and walk in fellowship with Him, and ask for that which the Lord desires, we can be sure that our prayers will be answered — “The effective prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (Jam 5:16). Follow-ing are 36 passages from Scripture that stress the importance of action taken “for God’s sake;” carefully reflect upon them to enhance your appreciation and understanding of this concept — 2 Kg 19:34; 20:6; Ps 23:3; 25:7, 11; 44:22; 69:7; 79:9; 106:8; 109:21; 143:11; Is 42:21; 43:25; 48:9, 11; Jer 14:7, 21; Ezek 20:14, 22, 44; Dan 9:17, 19; Matt 10:18; 16:25; Mark 10:29-30; Luke 6:22; Acts 9:16; Rom 1:5; 1 Cor 4:10; 2 Cor 4:11; 12:10; Phil 1:29; Phil 1:6; 1 Pet 2:13; 1 Jn 2:12. Never forget, ultimately life is about God, not us… God is the One who is preeminent, not us — that thought runs completely contrary to the flesh, because the flesh is all about self and its own autonomy. By the way, it takes most believers a “lifetime of struggling” to apprehend and accept this truth (Rom 11:36; 1 Cor 8:6; Eph 3:21; Col 1:16; 1 Tim 1:17; Heb 2:10; 1 Pet 4:11; 2 Pet 3:18). Carefully and prayerfully reflect upon each of the verses listed above in this section.
Second, “For Your righteousness’ sake” — from this expression we understand God’s faithfulness to His Word, in which He has promised to do these things for us… and His just dealing with us, as those in covenant with Him, for God has covenanted to withhold no good thing from us (Ps 84:11). Blessed be God that we can “plead His name!” — even though we can plead nothing of our own! Yes, we can “plead His righteousness!” — not withstanding our own unrighteousness! Think about that — why do we try to make ourselves “presentable to God” (which is impossible) in order to get Him to respond favorably to us? Remember, the only thing that is acceptable to God is that which is “perfect!” — and Jesus is the only One who is perfect! We can approach God’s throne in heaven only because of Christ and His perfect righteousness! Even though we ourselves have “absolutely nothing” to bring to the table, so-to-speak, we have been given the wonderful privilege of pleading “His righteousness!” Carefully reflect upon this concept — we can plead His righteousness, even though we lack any righteousness of our own! Praise be to His glory! not ours! So why do we insist on being able to “bring something to the table” when we have absolutely nothing to offer? That is the work of Satan in our souls, insist- ing that we come worthy in and of ourselves (at least to some degree)… lest God cast us out! Satan will always make us feel “shamefully unworthy of God’s love when we sin”… the truth of the matter is, Satan is a religious junkie who wants to get us all tangled up in a “religion of works!” By the way, if that’s the track you’re on, get off of it! You cannot win that battle! Jesus is our righteousness! beginning to end! (Gal 3:3, 11, 19). Get your eyes off of yourself, and get them on Christ! (Heb 12:2). Jesus is our salvation… not us! Every good and perfect gift comes to us “from above”… that HE might be praised! Not us! If this is a strange concept to you, prayerfully wrestle through it again and again until it peacefully settles in your soul (Ps 103:14).
Writes James Smith: “Soul trouble is the heaviest trouble!” As Solomon said, “A man may sustain some bodily infirmity, but a wounded spirit — who can bear?” Yet, when soul trouble weans us from SELF, and drives us to the LORD, it does us good. Says Smith, “Whatever makes us pray is a blessing!” — when the soul is troubled, it is at this time that our theology becomes more than just some forensic truth. The good news is, the Lord’s name and His righteousness and faithfulness may always be pleaded by us — we cannot plead our own names, or our own doings — but we can always plead the name of Jesus! even though we are shamefully guilty of some wrong! Therefore, however dark or dead we may feel… however Satan may tempt us, or corruptions work within us… however feeble our faith or strong our unbelief… let us still cry out to the Lord and plead His name and grace! that He may quicken us again, thus bringing our souls out of trouble… setting our feet upon a rock… and establishing our goings to the praise of His glory! It is also good to remember that what David experienced (at least in part) was also for our benefit (1 Cor 10:6, 11), and was recorded for our instruction and encouragement (Rom 15:4).
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man” (1 Cor 10:13) — there is no such thing as a new trial or new temptation under the sun; none of us are subjected to a “totally unique trial” — they are all common to men. All those men of great doctrinal knowledge down through the ages, who were at the forefront of Christian ministry, had their ebbs and winters. Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) battled terribly with a depressed soul — he saw his depression as his “worst feature.” He once said, “This depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing a larger blessing for my ministry.” Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) suffered from depression throughout his life. Writes George Marsden in his biography of Edwards: “Even as he kept the disciplines of the faith, he was frequently afflicted by times of spiritual darkness.” Likewise, Martin Luther (1483-1546) also experienced great discouragement in his soul — on one particular occasion he was forcefully reminded of this by his wife, Katharine: seeing him unresponsive to any word of encouragement, one morning she appeared dressed in black mourning clothes. Luther inquired as to the reason, and she responded, “Someone has died.” “Who died?” questioned Luther. “It seems God must have died” his wife replied. Luther got the point. All of God’s great saints were familiar with the despondency and depression that David and others in scripture experienced. The author of Psalm 42 was downcast and troubled in his soul, because it seemed to him that God had forgotten him — thus he was far more aware of God’s absence than God’s presence… just as we often are.
According to the writer of Hebrews, essentially we are to “love God and love others… be free from the love of money (and the craving of earthly possessions)… and be satisfied with our present circumstances, because God Himself said: ‘I will never fail you or desert you or give up on you, nor will I leave you helpless or forsake you or let you down’… thus in all things we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper, so I will never be afraid’” (cf. Heb 13:1, 5-6; Ps 23:4; 56:9; Ps 118:6; Mt 22:37; Rom 8:31). In this passage the Lord is letting us know that “we do not need to focus on earthly things” (be they circumstances or possessions), because He will oversee everything for us (Prv 23:4; Mt 6:25, 32-34) — due to the fact God goes both before us and behind us in life (Ps 139:5), we must simply “trust Him (literally that word means to “lean on / rely on”), and do good and cultivate faithfulness” (Ps 37:3) — that is “God’s charge” to each one of us as His children. Remember, cultivating faithfulness involves diligently applying God’s Word to your life, and consciously trusting the Holy Spirit to make it efficacious in your life (Prv 3:5; Jer 9:23). We have a work to do, and when we do our part — God will do His part! (1 Cor 3:6; Phil 2:12-13). If you think you can dump it all on God’s lap, you’ve been misled! so dig into the text and get to work!
I am well aware that this has been a very challenging study, and to some of you an exhausting one. Remember, “agreeing with the truth” is only half the battle (and that’s the easy half), “applying the truth” is the other half (and that’s what makes all the difference). As I stated early on in this study, I have re-read and wrestled with these truths over and over again, in part because of the need to be as clear as possible in presenting the various concepts, and second, to “reprogram my own thinking” — you don’t live a lifetime being wedded to a particular way of thinking, and in a short period of time just reverse course and never experience the repercussions of it again… truth needs to be continually affirmed in the believer’s mind, or untruth will find its way back into one’s thinking. The transformation of one’s soul is serious stuff, and is a moment by moment work — there are no holidays or “days off” in the Christian life; it is a life that is to be lived every waking moment. The Christian life is an ongoing spiritual war in the soul between truth & untruth that never stops! The enemy within is always present… ready to take advantage of the slightest little crack in your armor to get its viewpoint planted in your soul. In short, your flesh is “the spirit of hell” within you and works in conjunction with the devil himself — it is not just some poor little misguided nuisance. As Peter said, “Be of sober spirit and continually be alert, because your adversary, the devil, is on the prowl seeking someone to devour… you must resist him firm in your faith” (1 Pet 5:8-9). Remember, our struggle is with the spiritual forces of darkness (Eph 6:12). If you don’t take the matter of faith seriously, you will fall, because (by definition) your flesh will be in control of your life. Let me close this study with the profound words that Charles Wesley penned in is wonderful hymn, “And Can It Be?” Carefully reflect upon each of the four verses —
AND CAN IT BE?
And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain? For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be that Thou, My God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! how can it be that Thou, My God, shouldst die for me?
He left His Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace!
Emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race!
Tis mercy all, immense and free, for, O my God, it found out me!
Amazing love! how can it be that Thou, My God, shouldst die for me?
Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature’s night.
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray: I woke – the dungeon flamed with light!
My chains fell of, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee!
Amazing love! how can it be that Thou, My God, shouldst die for me?
No condemnation now I dread: Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head, and clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own!
Amazing love! how can it be that Thou, My God, shouldst die for me?
Abandon the life of the flesh… and live in the light of God’s love!