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Fighting sin

Those who have been cleansed by the shed blood of Christ and have His Spirit within them still struggle with sin. Some Christians will battle certain sins’ temptations all of their lives, and there may even be a genetic link to such orientations, but we all have inherited an essentially fallen nature, and most of us will feel like we are perhaps fighting against our own selves at least during various seasons of our pilgrimages toward a deeper relationship with God.

Undaunted, we must “fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience” (I Timothy 1:18-19). We need to resist sin so that we don’t wreck our faith, at which time our relationship with Christ ceases to be an experiential reality. Sin and faith are at odds with one another; each dilutes and weakens the other. On the night of his betrayal, Jesus knew Peter would deny Him. His behavior was not in question, but the result of it was, so Jesus also prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail him (Luke 22:31-34).

Whatever is sin should be avoided, never embraced. As we do this, our perceptions of sin become keener, and our conscience becomes stronger. When this takes place, we may realize that some of our prohibitions are nothing more than religious hang-ups, and we find ourselves putting aside groundless rules and moving in more freedom (Romans 14). More commonly, that which we were once doing without remorse becomes troubling to us, and if we are wise, we will respond by “putting aside our sin and the weights that so easily entangle us” (Hebrews 12:1).

Sin wreaks havoc with our conscience. Once that happens, there are only two ways to go. Repent and turn from that sin–even it it’s the thousandth time, turn to God and be cleansed, and walk like Christ walked, or else we can excuse ourselves and walk on our own.

Everything we do is either drawing us closer to God or taking us farther away. Likewise, our actions are either drawing people to Christ, or the opposite is true.

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If Jesus forgives, why not sin?

I used to carpool with a good churchgoing man, and he told me his wife asked a question in Sunday school that floored the teacher. She asked if all this was true about Jesus making us righteous, then why bother doing right things at all?

This woman only asked what many think, and what many actually live. A better question might have been, “Why do so many claim to be Christians, but their lives don’t seem much different from anyone else’s?”

Even though our deeds may not give us right standing with God, our justification with Him ought to produce righteous lives. The Apostle James wrote, “Faith without works is dead” (2:17).

If we truly have faith in Christ, we should want to do the things that please Him. Real faith must produce a new life. We cannot truly encounter one like Jesus and simply continue on our way unchanged.

The Apostle John wrote that those who are born of God “practice righteousness” and are unable to practice sin (I John 3:9), or that’s how the New American Standard translates the verse. Some English versions simply read that “no one who is born of God sins,” but that doesn’t seem to make as much sense because everyone sins, and we can come to the same conclusion as my carpool buddy’s wife: What’s the difference whether we sin or not?

The difference is that no one who has truly come to know Christ can be a good sinner anymore. We cannot abide in Christ and sin (I John 3:6), and knowing Jesus simply ruins us for wickedness. It gets harder and harder for us to deliberately pursue what we know to be sin.

That’s not to say we don’t lapse and fall short, for even James the hardnosed apostle admitted, “We all stumble in many ways” (3:2). But we Christians are always falling face down, Christ-ward, asking forgiveness, brushing ourselves off, and moving on in God’s will.

Sinners are running their own show, and while sin eventually catches up with them, they are often the last to admit they’ve done anything wrong.

Faith and sin are like the two sides of an American coin. On one side is the motto “In God We Trust.” We’ll call that faith. On the other side is a Latin motto, and, nothing against Latin, but we’ll call that sin. One side or another is going to be up; it’s never both at the same time.

Paul wrote that “whatever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23), and this is sin’s biggest danger: it replaces faith, and only those who walk in faith can know God and please Him.

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Life, faith, and the theological implications of desk top graffiti

When I was a young Christian, I worked at a job I absolutely hated, which was selling shoes. My loathing of this occupation was so intense that even the days I was off work were poisoned by the fact that I had to deal with shoes, feet, and the people attached to them.

At that time my church met in a high school, and an old man greeted everyone at the door. Once, he grabbed my hand, pumped it, and said in an obnoxiously buoyant way, “This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

Even though I knew he was quoting the Bible, I found his little greeting and exhortation irritating. As I walked away, I thought, “It’s easy for you to be happy. You’re retired!”

All through the church service, I tried to worship, but I was so discontent and morose that I hung around afterwards for some serious counseling. Our pastors were involved in various classrooms, greeting newcomers, praying for sick folks, and doing other pastoral duties, and I was in the hall waiting for one of them to break loose so I could discuss my extreme vocational displeasure.

While impatiently standing around, I noticed that school furniture was stored in one locked room, and the chairs and desks were stacked up right next to the door. Through the little window, I noticed on old wooden desk, covered with graffiti. Among all the cuss words, professions of love, and various names, someone had scratched a Bible reference: PS 118:24. I looked it up in my Bible, just to pass the time, and to my amazement, it was the exact verse the old man had quoted at the door.

Deciding that God was trying to get my attention, I walked out and didn’t see a pastor about my self-obsessed problems. As I recall, I went for a long hike in the woods, did a lot of praying and listening to God, and finally got my mind right.

Since then, I’ve wondered about all the theological implications of this incident. Did God preordain and direct a Christian to commit an act of vandalism for my benefit? Or was it an evil and misdirected act of zeal that God simply used to bring about good? Does He engineer every little action and event, moving us around like celestial chess pieces, or does he give us borders and boundaries and free will and then let us pretty much run the show?

Various Christian theologies provide their answers, but none of them completely satisfies me.

I’m not sure how or why God does what He does, but ruling creation is not my job anyway. Down here where I actually live, I’ve been trying to love and obey Him, rejoice, and be thankful, but I’m not always successful.

There was once a beer advertisement that proclaimed, “Some days are better than others.” This is true, and some days drive me to anything but joy and gratefulness. That’s really my problem and nobody else’s because each day is an opportunity to serve God, love others, and rejoice, despite our circumstances.

Even in the worst of times, there are glimpses of grace, and whatever comes my way is better than what I actually deserve. After all, I am a sinner, and apart from the tender mercies of Christ, hell is my only entitlement.

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Expectations and delusions: Faith, sin, and the pursuit of happiness

While attending my twenty-five year high school reunion, I ran into one of the Christians who had been in a music theory class with me during our senior year. He was drinking a five-dollar beer, and I was sipping free black coffee like some kind of refugee from Alcoholics Anonymous. He said he was glad to see me and wondered if I was still writing because he always thought the music reviews I did for the school paper were good enough to have been in Rolling Stone.

I brought him up to date on my literary pursuits and told him I was wondering if he was still a Christian like he was in school. He told me he really wasn’t “into that” anymore, but was still spiritual, whatever that was supposed to mean. Of course, I shared some details about my own spiritual experiences since graduation.

He listened politely and then asked, “So, are you happy?”

I thought about his question for a moment and replied, “Is that even relevant?”

He seemed surprised by my answer. Perhaps he thought our personal happiness was the supreme test of the Gospel’s value. If we use that as a gauge, we’re all going to be disillusioned because the pursuit of happiness is very often a quest for novelty. Eventually the shine of newness wears off, and then we’re stuck with the everyday life we had before. Or, even worse, real tragedy comes our way. We find ourselves out of work, lose a loved one, or become gravely ill.

There’s a lot of unhappiness in this life, but in the midst of it all, we can seek God and commune with Him in our hearts. He is always unchanging, but He never becomes a mere routine. He Himself helps us get through this life and makes us well prepared for the next one. We are able to live good and decent lives, but we will be incomplete until we finally see Him in full instead of in part, and all our distractions and tribulations are put away once and for all.

Very often, we have to refuse opportunities that could make us happy or rich or that otherwise seem good in order to stake our claim on that which is unseen and eternal. Doing all this requires a lot of faith. The Bible states, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:27). Unfortunately, I’ve had my own hearing dulled by the clamor of this present age, and I really like pleasure, money, success, and happiness.

While God is not against any of these things, He doesn’t value them nearly as much as we do. The Apostle Paul said, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), so why do we expect an easy ride?

Even Jesus Himself told us we would have many trials, but to cheer up, because He overcame the world (John 16:32). We also are called to overcome this world and not let it put us down, but I must admit, it’s hard to do. After all, I’m blood and skin and bones like everyone else, and I don’t like to suffer. In fact, I try to avoid hardships as much as possible, but they find me just the same.

Adapted from Keeping It Between the Ditches

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A long time being born: Part two

Before coming to Christ, there were moments when I’d get wind of that greater something, a passing awareness about God when I’d see a sunset behind long rows in a field, or sit in the candlelit darkness of a Christmas Eve service, or stand beneath a star-strewn sky far from city lights. All those times were but fleeting instances that left me wanting more of what I now know to be God.

Back in the trenches of my routines, I found less than godly ways of dealing with what writer Walker Percy called “the malaise of everydayness.” Sex, drugs, and rock and roll gave me that way out, especially the drugs, which for me were mostly marijuana and alcohol, and the parts of my soul that longed for God became muted, like a radio turned down low. It’s amazing to consider that in the very air around us radio waves, phone transmissions, satellite TV signals, and who knows what else are flying around unnoticed.

God is also mostly ignored, though the Bible declares, “He is not far from each one of us, for in Him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:27-28). With God so close, it’s easy to assume we know Him, and in a way we all at least know about Him. Some of our ideas are correct, and some are completely bogus. Most of the time we make up our own ideas about our Creator rather than hearing what He has to say for Himself. In other words, we turn off our spiritual radios and sing our own hideously off-key songs.

Like most people, I was a legalist at heart and figured God was keeping score, but graded on a curve like the more benevolent teachers I encountered in school. After all, I assumed I had never really hurt anyone and was better than all those murderers and thieves, so most of the time I felt quite righteous.

My comfort level was challenged when I encountered Christians at my job and the community college I started attending. They were an odd group, generally what I would have considered to be nerds, except they were unique nerds. Confident they were heaven-bound, those “Jesus Freaks” talked about God directing their lives as if they actually heard from Him on a regular basis.

I had started reading the Bible on my own, so God was working on me through other avenues besides experiences with peculiar people.  In addition to my study of Scripture, I read religious books and tracts, which seemed to be everywhere on that college campus: on tables in the cafeteria, on urinals in the restroom, even down in the tray of the cigarette vending machines where my Marlboros were dispensed. I ate and read those pamphlets. I peed and read them. I smoked and read them.

They usually ended with the “plan of salvation” and a “sinner’s prayer.” The plan was basically admitting I was a sinner and acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God and risen Lord. I was pretty sure I’d always believed Jesus was the Son of God, but I didn’t comprehend what that really meant. Assuming we were all sons of God, I never realized He alone is uniquely divine, and His claims of Lordship required me to acknowledge Him as absolute ruler of my life.

Blissfully unaware of the deep implications of the “plan,” I prayed the accompanying “sinner’s prayer” numerous times, just to keep my bases covered.

Eventually, I fell in with some non-denominational Christians who used drums and guitars in their church services. I even started playing in a Christian rock band and was having a good time of it, going around to churches, coffeehouses, and outdoor revival meetings. Sometimes we drove out of state and spent nights away from home. Once, we even flew in a big airliner to a city hundreds of miles away and stayed in a hotel, just like rock stars, except we didn’t throw our television out the window or entertain groupies in our room.

Even though life was good, I began to feel like something was missing, so I asked one of my pastors for prayer, but he wanted to discuss my spiritual life first.

Maybe that was just the way he did things, or perhaps God tipped him off that something was amiss. I did have long hair, and much later he told me that when we had first met, he thought I was one of the meanest-looking guys he’d ever seen, so perhaps that’s what motivated his inquisition.  After a few minutes prodding me for various details, he said, “You need to get saved.”

Immediately, I began to defend myself because I was in a Christian band, had been baptized, quit smoking pot, and was living a more decent life than I had previously. Somewhere in the midst of my words, though, it seemed as if a door opened deep in my soul, beneath all the mental assents and verbal defenses I was giving.

On a much deeper and more genuine level, I knew I was lost. In Acts 2:37 Peter had preached, and the Scriptures convey that those who listened were “pierced to the heart,” and asked, ‘What shall we do?’” That’s pretty much what happened to me, and I actually felt almost impaled, like I couldn’t move until things were set right between God and me.

Jesus said that many who had called Him Lord would come before Him on the Day of Judgment and declare they had done many great deeds in His name, but Jesus will say He never knew them (Matthew 7:21-23). This section of the Bible sobers many Christians because they think a person can do many good works and still not measure up, but the truly telling fact about those condemned people is not that they did great works.

Jesus never addresses their claims directly, and we don’t know for sure if they performed those wonderful deeds or not. What we know for certain is that they were using their works as their justification. No true Christian would do this, but that’s I attempted when talking with my pastor that night.

Rather than declaring Jesus as my Savior, I was actually trusting in my religious acts. Instead of seeing His sacrifice on the cross as my redemption, I was looking to my paltry acts of self-improvement. Never before had I truly seen myself as a sinner in need of salvation.

For the first time in my life, I cried out to God as a man in desperate need. Sure, I’d confessed some wrong actions before, but I had never acknowledged that I myself was horribly wrong and separated from Him because of my sin.

On that night, I was finally drawn from my dark womb of self-centered religion and birthed into the light of a relationship with Christ Himself. Prior to that time, I had known about God, but that night I came to know Him. A neglected region within my soul was vacant, but then the Spirit of the risen Christ took up residence there.

Like a newborn baby, I cried, but all my tears were not ones of joy. I left that night with a peculiar peace within me, one that when I became still enough was not a mere feeling, but the very presence of Christ Himself. In my mind, there were doubts and questions, but there was a bottom line of peace in my heart, and within that peace God spoke to me about making some changes.

In those early days after my conversion, I realized the need to cut off relationships, quit vices, and make a new life. I literally threw out bag after bag of junk I deemed unholy: books, magazines, music, old photographs, cases of tobacco, and souvenirs of my sinful ways— the assortment of items was staggering. I quit going certain places and began to frequent others. Some people I gave a cold shoulder, at least for a while, and others I sought out.

During that period of my life, a peculiar image about my situation formed in my mind. It was something like the tricks performed where a tablecloth is pulled from beneath elaborate place settings of china and silverware and even centerpieces and candelabras, but all the items remain where they are, undisturbed on a bare table.

I felt as though nearly everything that I had once known and valued had been yanked from beneath me, but I wasn’t falling over or crashing down. I was a man with an invisible means of support, and God was holding my life together.

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A long time being born

Admitting you’re a failure who desperately needs Jesus and becoming born again isn’t instantaneous, just like getting born the first time around. Sure, there is a “moment” when a baby is born—that’s what we put on a birth certificate, after all, and I can tell you the date when I consider that I was truly “saved” (September 5, 1978), but something was going on before that in both cases.

Prior to a baby coming into the world, he or she is hidden in the dark recesses of a mother, starting from a sperm and egg that find each other to become a clump of cells, then later an embryo that looks more like a fish than a person, and, eventually, a brand new baby.

I had a long spiritual gestation period myself, and a lot of spiritual seed came my way before (as the King James Bible puts it) “finding purchase” in the hard ground of my heart. It took quite a while for me to emerge from my familiar and somewhat comfortable womb of darkness and come into the true light of Christ, but behind all my changes was a Heavenly Father who called me to Himself, even when I was hell-bent on doing things my own way.

While I sincerely refer to myself as one being hell-bent, it wasn’t like I was a practicing Satanist. No, I basically tried to do what I thought was right. Unfortunately, I didn’t know right from wrong too much of the time, and even when I did, I often found myself crossing over the lines I’d set up for myself, my own rather arbitrary boundaries of what I considered to be righteous behavior.

By the time I was out of high school, I had been drunk or stoned more times than I can even estimate now, and I’d had a lot of sex. Perhaps even worse, I was often judgmental, moody, and selfish. Occasionally I was downright mean, and I chose to lie from time to time just to save my own precious skin, but I’ll spare the details for now.

Despite my many lapses, I figured I was on good terms with God, but I was in no position to judge that. My standards were not His; God’s morality was always loftier than mine, and even the rules of conduct I set up for myself were constantly being violated.

I refused to worry about these lapses very much, but there was always a peculiar tension beneath the surface routines of going to school, working lame jobs, hanging out with friends, playing sports, or messing around in amateur rock bands. The deadly dullness of it all had me looking for something larger because God was simply not going to allow me to be content in my absurd and fallen state.

He was always drawing me to Himself, even when I was doing my best to ignore Him. Of course you never could have told me I was disregarding God–I always fancied myself to be a rather “spiritual” person. Perhaps one of our biggest needs for a Savior is due to the fact that we like to think more highly of ourselves than we should.

Adapted from Keeping It Between the Ditches

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Every day a Friday

A popular television preacher, known for his positive messages of self-affirmation and achieving personal happiness, wrote a book titled Every Day a Friday. Now, this idea appeals to me because I happen to like Fridays. It’s dress down day at work, people seem to be in a good mood, and I usually look forward to a pleasant weekend. Apparently, I’m not alone. Studies suggest that people are happiest on Fridays, so I suppose the whole point of the book is that we can be happy every day.

On the other hand, I’m not so sure what all that has to do with the Bible or with being a Christian.

Jesus said that he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). His work of service reached a grueling and agonizing conclusion while nailed to a cross one Friday over two thousand years ago. Prior to that he told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

In this life of self-denial we choose to love because “God is love” (I John 4:8). Real love is more about decisions demonstrated by actions than it is about feelings. When those happy feelings are present, we should enjoy them. When they aren’t, we must simply do whatever love requires, even if it hurts and we need to put aside our own desires.

Perhaps every day should be like a Friday, but my expectations for what that means need to be more in line with Jesus than with some smiling media celebrity.

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