Trying harder is not your best option

Try harder! Try harder! It is the mantra of both American culture and American Christianity.

Do you want to get ahead? Work harder!

Do you want to excel? Do more!

Do you want to be a better Christian? Strive more intensely!

Do you need to deal with some sin or struggle in your life? Start fighting to overcome it!

This is common fare in many Sunday morning sermons, and on the surface it sounds like wise counsel. The Apostle Paul talked about “pressing toward the mark” and “fighting the good fight,” and the author of Hebrews even said, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your own blood.” So apparently, there is a greater striving to be reached and a fiercer resistance to be waged. However, the striving and the resistance are not the starting points.

The reason we sin is because we love it. Sin is not an annoyance that we need to deal with, it is something that we have actually grown to love. Granted, it is possible to both love and despise our sin simultaneously, but the reality is that if we only hated it, we wouldn’t keep returning to it. So, technically speaking, we don’t primarily have “sin” issues we actually have “love” issues.

The first step in moving beyond a lesser love or addiction is to develop a greater love. We cannot merely tell ourselves, “Stop sinning! God hates it and it isn’t good for me. It will hurt me in the long run, and I need to be a better person.” All of those sentiments may be true, but none of them can cure our longing for the sin, unless we learn to long for something greater.

Here is how one of America’s early Pilgrims expressed it in The Valley of Vision: “Teach me to believe that if ever I would have any sin subdued I must not only labor to overcome it, but must invite Christ to abide in the place of it, and He must become to me more than (the sin) had been; His sweetness, power, life must be there.”[1] In other words, we overcome sin when we begin to love God more than our sin; we say no to lesser loves when we encounter something greater to say “yes” to.

Let’s process this in our hearts with God. Let’s admit that we love our vices. And then rather than beating ourselves up and pledging another round of well-intended vows, let’s ask God for a greater love. Let’s ask Him to reveal Jesus to us and introduce the Holy Spirit to us to such a degree that everything else grows dim by comparison.

[1] Arthur Bennet, Editor, The Valley of Vision (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 295.

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Won’t Becomes Can’t

Anne Frank, whose Holocaust diary was posthumously published as the famed Diary of a Young Girl, stated, “Our lives are fashioned by our choices. We first make our choices. Then our choices make us.” Miss Frank was a mere fifteen years old when she died in a concentration camp and yet her writings possess a wisdom that continues throughout history.

Consider those words again. We first make our choices. Then our choices make us.

Endowed with free will, we humans have the ability to obey or disobey God. That choice is our right. However, as young Anne—and philosophers through the ages—understood, every choice that we make carries an accompanying consequence, and eventually those individual consequences harden into a consistent reality. In biblical terminology that hardening is called a “stronghold”. And strongholds are morally neutral—they can be either good or bad.

For instance, if I consistently respond to the whisper and prompting of the Holy Spirit in my life I will create a pattern/habit/stronghold of righteousness. Conversely, if I routinely disobey, yielding my mind, affections, or body to sin, I will create a sinful stronghold. And if I consistently won’t obey God (through the exercise of my free will) I will get to a place where I can’t obey Him—I will be gripped too tightly in the stronghold of my sin.

Does this make sense? If I consistently reach for things that are displeasing to God, they will eventually reach back, and then even if I want to let go, I sometimes can’t. I am bound. Addiction counselors understand this. They explain that for an addict the act of reaching for a forbidden, damaging substance is a choice; however, once the choice is made the addiction/stronghold takes over and it is no longer a choice—it is bondage.

I’m not sure if Anne Frank knew that she was paraphrasing a famous adage from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “Our actions become our habits, our habits become our character, and our character becomes our destiny.” Variations of this quote have been attributed to Stephen Covey, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and numerous others, but it actually appeared in ancient literature that pre-dated the time of Christ, and it has always been true. The exercise of our free will is dangerously powerful—it can create realities that either sabotage us or set us free.

Let’s choose life! Let’s tear down our suffocating, damaging strongholds and let’s build new ones on the rock of Jesus Christ.

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24)

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:4)

I want a rule; God wants obedience

breaking rulesHow many drinks can I have? One? Two? More? Or none at all?

Can I watch certain kinds of R-rated movies? Like the ones that are only rated R for violence? Or maybe just language? Or other stuff too as long as it isn’t too bad?

What are my rules for what is and is not acceptable?

Some people don’t care about these kinds of questions—they aren’t “rule people” and they are happy to make these decisions on the fly. Others, however, feel more comfortable with clearly defined boundaries, and they appreciate the comfort and security of always knowing exactly what they should and shouldn’t do.

Personally, I am a rule person and I prefer to know exactly what my boundaries are. I like the security of knowing precisely when I am and am not on the right path, and sometimes the Bible caters to personalities like mine. Sometimes the Scriptures clearly highlight the paths that God wants us to walk, and there’s nothing left for us to do but start walking. There are other times though when the Bible isn’t quite as clear. It doesn’t give us rules to follow; it gives us principles to apply.

Sometimes I want a law to govern me, but God wants something very different. He wants my mature obedience. Sometimes simple rule keeping can be a lesser path than actually following the Holy Spirit’s leading.

Remember, being led by the Spirit is a key mark of mature sonship and daughterhood (Romans 8:14), and often that leading occurs in settings where the rules aren’t perfectly clear. Paul devoted entire chapters of his writings to matters of conscience, coaching us for those times when singular rules can’t fully dictate correct behavior.

We live in a time in history when we must know God’s laws, understand the principles that drive them, and be sensitized to the Holy Spirit’s leading. When Scripture is clear we follow it clearly. When it is unclear–or open to multiple interpretations–we follow its principles. And when multiple paths are legitimate options, we trust the Spirit’s leading in our conscience.

The Power and the Promptings

lightningThere IS a way to consistently experience the power of the Holy Spirit. And it’s not nearly as difficult as we sometimes make it.

I’m certain you have had moments in your life where you either sensed God’s presence or felt a surge of His power filling your soul, encouraging your faith and banishing your fears.

Like me, you’ve probably wanted to prolong those moments.

Well, according to the Apostle Paul in Romans 8 and Galatians 5 there is a simple truth that, when lived, enables us to increase the frequency of those experiences.

The power follows the promptings.

That’s the bottom line of Paul’s teachings about how to live a victorious, Spirit-empowered life. He asserts that simple obedience to the internal promptings and leadings of the Holy Spirit brings us into direct contact with God’s power.

In Galatians 5:16 he says it this way: “Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” A commentator’s text note on this verse reminds us that “walk” is a present tense verb, implying a command to “keep on walking.” And when we keep on walking, making daily, moment-by-moment adjustments to follow the Spirit’s leading in our lives, God’s power becomes our consistent portion.

Just as guilt and condemnation flood our soul when we routinely disobey God’s leading, so His peace, security, and power meet us when we obey.

That’s it. Obey the promptings; experience the power. It’s difficult enough to become the spiritual battlefield of our lives, but it’s simple enough that even a child can understand and do it.

Incidentally, when we live this, truly walking in ongoing obedience, we prove that we actually are His children (Romans 8:14).