I remember flopping back and staring up at the impassive blankness of the ceiling, baffled.
Why is this so hard?
It had been a long while since I fell back into this particular habitual sin--so long, in fact, that I'd congratulated myself, felt that I'd successfully conquered it. And then, just when I was least expecting it, I fell.
Let he who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.
1 Corinthians 10:12.
Clenching my fists, an instinctive response, made me realize that I had done this too many times. This feeling--guilt, shame, self-reproach, and most of all a sense of confusion at my own foolishness--was too familiar. Every time I would knuckle my fingers under and tell myself, I'll try harder next time. I will be strong. I will be more prepared. I will--I will--
What completely baffled me was waking up to the realization that willpower was not the answer.
And that left me lost because, for so many things in life--so many challenges that I've faced, and overcome, in more or less messy ways--willpower and reason were the weapons I clung to.
We are so used to clenching our fists. Facing the chinup bar, cringing at the premonition of burning muscles, but willing myself to do it this time, I clench my fists. The moment before I walk into an exam, or on stage, I breathe deeper and knot my fingers over sweaty palms. Facing uncertainty in the future, hoping desperately for success, my fingers dig into my palms once again as I reason with myself.
I try. I try, hard.
In so many things in life, we push ourselves forward clutching reason and willpower tightly, propelling ourselves forward on our faith in our ability to try, try. And that is not a bad thing.
But when it comes to dealing with habitual sin we need something more than just reason and willpower.
We have to realize first of all that habitual sin is more than just one isolated act. It is a lifestyle. A state of being.
Which is why the Bible uses the metaphor of slavery to talk about our ongoing struggle with sin, the gory process of sanctification. You are born a slave, and identify yourself/are identified as a slave--not because of one or several acts of obedience, but because that is how you live your whole life, how you see yourself.
Sin is an enslaving power rather than an isolated action,
And that's why when dealing with habitual sin it's not enough to simply think I'll have more will-power next time, I'll try harder next time, the way that works with dieting or acing an exam. It is not enough.
Our lapses into sin, which are really our lapses in love, stem from our existing relationship with God, our current ongoing spiritual state. Each fall is more than one incident--it is another link in the existing chain of our slavery to sin. And when we look back, all those one-off decisions (oh, I lapsed this once; this will be the last time; I wasn't trying as hard as I could have) form a definite and damning pattern of repeated sin.
To confront habitual sin in our lives we have to re-examine our relationship with God. See the link between the state of our current spiritual life and our inability to keep away from that one besetting sin.
We need to relearn what grace means. To accept the harsh truth of our limitations, our inability to handle ourselves even with the help of reason and willpower--the two tools that enable us to accomplish so much elsewhere.
We need to pray for the Holy Spirit's help. Acknowledge our weakness, not just after we sin, but before--and ask for a strength that we can barely imagine right now, in our state of frailty.
Search me, O God, and know my heart
Try me, and know my anxieties;
And see if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the path everlasting.
Psalm 139: 23-24
The first thing that came to my mind when I read this verse a few days ago was a shocked Wow how did David dare to say this??
I don't know about you, but there is something frightening in such complete honesty and humility. Search me and know my heart! Here are all my anxieties, all my insecurities, everything about my limits and fears and weaknesses!
Here are my failures.
Here are the things I don't want anyone to know about. That I wish I didn't know about myself.
Here are the things that are killing me.
Here are the darkest and most destructive things inside my soul.
(cue Imagine Dragon's Demons)
And by the way, you're not saying all this to a human you could possibly control. Of course, it's one thing to say that we couldn't hide any of this from Him anyway. But David is willingly accepting, even inviting this. Not being able to stop someone from reading your diary is one thing; telling them, "Here, read. Don't skip pages 356 and 127--they're especially enlightening" is something else.
I wondered--as in the past tense verb of the word wonder, and not the synonym for pondered. Such fearless honesty was something I shrinked from. How on earth could David declare this so confidently? Remember, this was the Old Testament, before the New Covenant, before grace as we know it in Jesus Christ. David saw Uzzah struck dead for touching the Ark, he had the guilt of Uriah's death on his past, and yet he could say this, knowing how holy God was, and how sinful he was.
David could say all this because he was willing to give up all the pet sins, all the bad habits or weaknesses, all the idols in his heart when he surrendered it to God. Because he knew and acknowledged honestly and humbly--ah, humbly!--his own unworthiness, and God's holiness. Because when he asked God to lead him in the way everlasting, he was going to follow--to actively, purposefully, and wholeheartedly follow.
He could say that.
He could say that because of this.
When I was young, I fought with my brother tooth and nail (too often literally) seemingly all day, every day. Today, my siblings are my best friends, a blessing I don't even care has been negatively stereotyped for homeschoolers. Seriously. Sour grapes, I say.
One reason why this epic gruelling battle went on for so many years (I think it was responsible for most of my mom's white hairs) was that I wouldn't and couldn't see how I was to blame. Obviously my brother was the main culprit--because if he hadn't been so hyper active/noisy/interfering I would have happily stayed at my desk writing my stories and drawing my endless pictures of anthropomorphic cats and dogs in medieval dress (I don't know what this scores on your WeirdoMeter, but that's precisely how I spent the bulk of my free time for many years.) I was what they call a 'diem' child--or as one personality test diagnosed, an introvert (albeit a high-functioning one.) Happy to be by myself, doing my own stuff. Of course, it was my brother's fault for poking me first--annoying me--being noisy--causing me to lash out.
''It's HIS fault!" I wailed every time my mother had to separate us. "He started it first! He's irritating me!"
I see this same mentality when I work with kids. Fingers point. Defiant glares. Tears. "He keeps bothering me!" "She pushed me so I pinched her!"
We all have certain people in our lives who annoy us.
Maddeningly slow, reminiscent of the sloths in Zootopia. (loved that movie, by the way.What a fun and witty satire on human nature and the chemistry between different personalities...)
Nit-picky and hard to please, always criticizing so that you cringe whenever they volunteer their opinion.
Ungracious in the way they talk. Perhaps their humour makes you wince inside behind a strained smile.
Maybe stuff they've borrowed has a bad habit of never coming back.
Or perhaps they simply have bad breath, or a habit of standing intimidatingly close when they talk--
Maybe they simply have really different opinions, backgrounds, and priorities from us. Just deciding on a place to eat makes you see how different your budgets and expectations on food are...'so you think you're too good for Mac's?' 'what, vegetables? Seriously? Are you a health freak or what?' 'How on earth can you eat so little/so much??'
It's easy to get annoyed, even when other people don't mean to be annoying. When I was small I often got impatient and was rude to a young friend who kept calling. Like every day. Just wanting to talk about unimportant stuff. Unfortunately I had lots of IMPORTANT STUFF (and I even saw them in my mind capitalized) and the last thing I wanted to do was to be forced to listen to a long, unending phone call about virtually nothing at all. I'm afraid without being downright rude (thank God my parents would never have let me get away with that) I managed to be pretty unkind--curt, impatient, and brilliant at finding excuses for not being able to take a call.
I look back and realize the same entitled mentality lay behind my hasty 'bye got to go tell me next time' and my 'He started it!' defensive wail when my mom had to act as mediator and judge between my brother and I. Just because someone was annoying--whether unintentionally, or even purposefully--didn't justify my being mean to them. This was something my mom kept trying to impress on me all those cat-and-dog years, in her attempt to balance the invariably one-sided punishment.
I only realized and accepted this later when I was seeking salvation and, knowing I needed to truly see my own sin in order to repent and be saved, prayed for God to show me. He answered, in a very direct and real and personal way, when it felt near impossible, first by showing me this.
Just because I was annoyed, just because someone had done something which prickled me, didn't automatically give me the license to retaliate, to punish them for disturbing my peace or my happiness. It's harder to realize this when it is a legitimate wrong done to you, because indeed, wrong has been done and every conscience with its God-given ability to tell right from wrong knows that punishment must be meted, deserves to be meted.
But--a standard takeaway concept from many superhero and action movies, where it becomes what separates the good guys from the bad guys; their refusal to replicate the evil in the name of revenge.
Jesus, after all, suffered much more than mere annoyance, though I'm sure the dense disciples often got on His nerves with their inability to understand so many things.
He loved us selflessly when we hurt Him most.
A while back in class I studied two works by Franz Kafka--The Metamorphosis and The Trial.
I'd read Metamorphosis before, identified with poor Gregor, felt I more or less understood its themes of alienation and dehumanization, but The Trial was beyond me. I didn't end up preparing it for my exams, but what little I read and was taught about it didn't make me feel I'd made any progress understanding or even identifying with it than if I'd been reading it on my own. (which is highly improbable; I would have put it down after the first chapter.)
Basically the protagonist K is told he's under arrest, for unspecified reasons, but is allowed to continue living his life per normal. He tries vaguely to get a lawyer, never really finds out why he's being arrested--or really seems to care as much as we'd expect--and finally after a long interlude is taken out by two officers and shot. This summary sounds very inadequate and probably is, but that's pretty much the main plot.
Apparently one of the central themes of The Trial is the significance of guilt to the human condition, within the philosophy of existentialism. Kafka's own life story was pretty tragic and very much revolved around guilt, not surprisingly.
That aside, I didn't quite see the point. Guilt as central to being human? Really? Of course I said nothing in class, assuming that maybe I hadn't really understood it, or didn't know enough abut existentialism, or just hadn't lived long enough (which is more often the case than we'd like to admit!) After all, I was twenty-one and very much in love with life...
Now at twenty-two (and still loving life, albeit for different reasons) I think I won't be writing The Trial off so easily. Guilt really is probably one of the most crippling and horrible things that we could faec in life, looking at life from an existential perspective.
The Bible talks about guilt without God as 'worldly sorrow', and acknowledges its bleak hopelessness. (2 Corinthians 7:10)
If this earth is the only thing we can expect to experience, what happens to us here and what we do have terrifyingly final significance. Our one chance, our one experience of life, can be ruined by one mistake. You can't turn back time.
If ourselves and others are the only ones we can look to, we have no hope of ever really remedying our mistakes. What's done can't ever be undone. We can only try, often as not messing it up too--and live with the consequences as well as we can. We were made for ideals, and the conflict that subsequently comes of the less-than-ideal state of ourselves and the world only highlights that.
As such, guilt would be without hope. Guilt would be horrible. A psychological and internal disease we can't ever resolve completely, which we will inevitably suffer, and which will haunt us to the end of our lives as reminders of our failure.
I have so many things to feel guilty for, which could so easily warp how I see the past, and cripple how I see the future. People I have let down. Relationships I have let go when I should have fought for them. Selfish decisions or carelessness, or just plain ignorance, which hurt myself and hurt others. It's so easy to obsess over these things, to agonize over what-ifs and if-onlys, to beat yourself up over what went wrong. These things haunt you years down the road, ruin quiet moments of reflection, crush you repeatedly every time they surface in your mind.
But that's guilt without God. Or 'worldly sorrow,' as the Bible calls it.
Because we believe that this earth and our linear existence under the bondage of time, our limited knowledge and consciousness, and most of all the significance of this life--aren't everything.
Because we believe that there is a God Whose existence transcends the sort of existence we know, Whose knowledge transcends our knowledge, and Whose being is in itself evidence that life as we know it in this earthly form is not the ultimate. Because we believe that there is more than our limitations and our life here. Because we believe that even our mistakes and sins are not final.
Christ's death transformed the concept of guilt by enabling hope.
Psalm 86 verse 11 has a simple but intriguing phrase: Unite my heart to fear your name.
Everything in me resonated with that line when I read it--YES.
Our hearts are complex.
Despite all those cute Awkward Yeti Brain and Heart comics that paint those two organs of ours in a oversimplified, basically oppositional relationship, our hearts are pretty complex just on their own.
We know--or we should know--that our words and actions reflect what is already present in our heart, and that our hearts are the root of whatever behavioural problems or issues we're trying to solve. Our hearts should be what we're addressing in our struggle with sin. The renewal of our hearts is one aspect, and a very significant one, of our sanctification as Christians; in conjunction with the other, equally significant aspect: that of concrete, active decisions to resist sin, which we make every day.
This is basically the jist of that post written more than a year ago (phew.) Now, though, I want to look at another perspective on the relationship between our hearts and our mouths.
Take a look at Psalm 39. I remember being astounded the first time I read this psalm--it was so direct, so straightforward, so honestly personal, I felt that if I looked up I would see the Psalmist materializing in front of me. Heck, I could even hear myself saying these words (though I would probably have phrased everything just a bit less elegantly...)
The heart-mouth relationship is a two-way road. Just as our hearts affect what comes of our mouths, what comes out of our mouths can also affect our hearts. The Psalmist learnt not to encourage the anger and bitterness in his heart by letting his tongue run away expressing it. His response when his heart was 'hot within me' was to 'guard my ways, lest I sin with my tongue.' Obviously, this didn't resolve his anger within--but it was valuable for something else: not exacerbating it. The result? The 'fire burned' still within, yes; but ultimately, it made him turn to God in frustration, where there was hope for a true resolution:
'Lord, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days,
That I may know how frail I am...
...Certainly every man at his best state is but a vapor.
And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You;
Deliver me from all my transgressions...'
If I had had the insight to discern it, I could have learnt this from personal experience. After all, if you're struggling to forgive someone, obviously it won't help if you let all these emotions blast-- it tempts you to feel more aggrieved, to downplay your own wrong, and encourages you in your bitterness, pride, anger, unforgivingness.
If the person you're dumping all these grimy emotions on sympathizes with you, well, how nice for our fallen nature--we already were 100% sure we were in the right; now we're 200% sure. If they don't, you're very likely going to feel even more defensive and aggrieved because they downplay or disregard your feelings. Either way, it doesn't seem a very promising move towards forgiveness and restoration. It's running a nice bathtub for you to wallow in self-pity. And preparing a nice safe equipped with dehumidifiers and a nest of cotton wool for you to carefully cherish your grudge in.
Be careful. Our hearts, after all, are complex. Maybe we have sincere desires to forgive, to be humble, to resist bitterness. But those aren't going to be the only emotions in our messed up hearts.
Those complaining, selfish, arrogant, bitter (and the list goes on, unfortunately) words express what's in our hearts. And they also exacerbate the feelings they stem from.
Of course, we must qualify, as any statement nowadays--especially on the internet--must in order to avoid being grossly misinterpreted, misquoted, and misunderstood. (and sometimes it still happens anyway, but at least you have the satisfaction of knowing you did your best.) Talking, especially in times of emotional crisis, is important.
Of course. I would be the last person who dares to question that, for the unpleasant reason that I often talk too much too fast (they tend to come together.) It's the way we talk, how much we talk, maybe even who we talk to, depending on the context--all highly subjective details that I won't even attempt to address. At any rate, I am not about to bother arguing for something fairly obvious.
Talking about our emotions is important, yes. A not so popular aspect of that, however, is talking about our emotions to the person who evoked them. We're cowards at heart, all of us. If only our problems could be solved by us talking about them to third party sympathizers who are comfortably distanced from the person we're talking about, and we're insured against negative consequences. (yoohoo,Youtube comments.) Actually, a surprising amount of of people problems could be resolved if we were brave and humble enough to honestly confront the person who's causing us unhappiness--confess our own wrong--gently tell them of theirs--and work together for reconciliation. That is, after we've asked God to help us with our complex hearts. To genuinely love and care for the person. To keep our motivations from self-pity and arrogance and just basically being nasty and obnoxious. After all, if prayer reflects our relationships with people, being able to pray for the person who offended you is a good sign that you've made the first move away from prideful self-centeredness, towards forgiveness and humility.
May our hearts be united in the right desires; in humility and a desire to please God.
'...And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You;
Deliver me from all my transgressions.'
Fighting sin is a battle that defines every Christian's journey on earth.
Sometimes we charge ahead bravely, fortified by our armor and supported by the companions besides us.
Sometimes we crawl naked and bruised from a great fall, in the dirt, and every drop of blood we shed is a reproach to ourselves.
But sometimes we're not so much bruised and bleeding as so weak we can't even stand--we wonder how we became so weak without realizing it before, why something that used to be so simple and forthright suddenly morphed into something so complex and frighteningly difficult. How did we get so weak, and how do we go on?
Looking through my old prayer/spiritual journal from 2012, I discovered one entry where I was struggling with this problem--it felt like I kept falling down whenever I tried to pick myself up, my legs were too weak to stand. Suddenly, I had become so weak in fighting sin. Spiritually I felt like a jellyfish on a dry road, too weak to move, let alone resist anything that tried to squash it or push it back.
I feel ashamed and horrified at myself, and know how difficult it'll be to change.
It makes me realize that I haven't been fighting sin with God's help of late. I've been weakly and halfheartedly struggling with it on my own, and that's why I give in so easily. I need to see the occasions of sin as what they are--every one a fight with Satan--no matter how small or unimportant it seems, and cry to God for help. Is it any wonder if I get discouraged, burnt out, or desensitized if I go on like this?
Sometimes these subtle attacks are worse than the outright wars; it's very obvious, at least, if it's a terrific struggle, something big and bad like fighting to control anger or swallow pride. The severity of it forces me to cry to God for help and then, even in the midst of the fierce war, know that I either end up winning or losing decisively.
But when it's a 'small' sin the strife is so mild in comparison that I end up not asking for God's help, thinking I can deal with it on my own. And then even if I lose, it doesn't seem a big thing--maybe the person you're sinning against doesn't even know or notice it; or it's not enough to visibly strain your relationship; or no one knows, it's just between you and your conscience.
But that's why I've been failing more and more of these challenges. That's why I've gradually become so weak that big and small sins alike become equally difficult, equally impossible to resist. I've fallen into the habit of relying on myself to overcome 'small sins', to settle little temptations with my own self-control and will-power instead of recognizing that I need God's help and going straight to ask Him for it.
Our self-control and our will-power are powerful forces if God uses them. But on their own--on our own, without Him--they became pathetic sticks we wave around under the delusion that they're swords. They can only bring us so far in our war against sin and then they'll crumble away into useless chips of bark in our hands, leaving us helpless and weak.
We can't do it on our own.
I have been constantly learning this lesson, the same lesson in different ways and different depths, all along my Christian life--whether as an unconverted seeker struggling to make peace with God, a young Christian full of aspirations I want to carry out for God, or simply the old fight of sanctification, struggling with the sin that dogs me.
I can't do it on my own.
I need His help, in the big things and the small, in the big sins and the small.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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