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.
continued from part 1
RULE FOUR: Interpret personal experience in the light of Scripture, and not Scripture in the light of personal experience.
Personal experience should not become the rubric for how we understand the Bible, though it definitely is the basis for how we apply it in our lives. For example; it might lead to us distorting the truth because we argue that "in my case," the ends justify the means; or that our case is an exception. Our approach to understanding Scripture should not be to first see if it fits what makes sense to our limited and often biased perspective of life.
There was a good example--we were given a short sample 'sermon' that argued that polygamy wasn't against the Bible, and should be accepted as a legitimate alternative for Christians, citing 'proof' from church history, cultural evidence, and
RULE FIVE: Biblical examples are only authoritative when supported by a command.
This means that though it would not be wrong if we read "Go, sell all you have." in Mark 10:21 and feel convicted to do something along those lines with our own possessions, it would be wrong if we insisted that this was what Jesus commanded every single Christian to do, and started busting into our church members' homes to garage sale their furniture for the Red Cross. Unless it is a specific command, such as John 14:15--"If you love Me, keep My commandments--" we should not be interpreting and using the Bible in this way. Just as Abraham tying Isaac up as a sacrifice obviously isn't God's intention for every Christian parent, though in Abraham's case it was the right thing to do, being a test of obedience.
Likewise, there are so many different types of characters in the Bible if you look at it from a literary point of view, and not just the 'good/bad' binary characters either; so many of them, like Abraham, Gideon, Solomon, Samson, and my favourite King David, are 'good' yet essentially flawed. Do we simply follow what they did because they were people God used, they were 'good' people in that sense because they obeyed God and were used to do great works? (and in David's case, even loved God and were loved by God) No, it's so obvious that these people made mistakes too--they, like us, were cowardly, weak, lustful, selfish, proud, greedy at one time or another. The Bible does not present everything they did as something for us to emulate.
Basically, understand that the content in the Bible is in two categories: the general--content which is given for us to derive our personal application from, and benefit from accordingly within the context of our unique individual situations--and the specific, which are explicit commands applicable for all, not up to what we think they should mean for us.
RULE SIX: The primary purpose of the Bible is to change our life, not to increase our knowledge.
This was a good, if obvious reminder. In our privileged first world society where education and knowledge are prioritized and seen as indications of and means to power and superiority, we may end up having the same attitude towards studying the Bible and getting a PhD. The more obscure facts, background info, historical background, theology, and lexical analysis we absorb about the Bible, the more complacent and self-satisfied we feel, the more 'godly.' But our priority should not be how much Bible knowledge we can cram into our little brains during our time on earth. The purpose of the Bible was to change our lives. If we absorb all that knowledge only as such--head knowledge, which doesn't extend to active application; like a dietician who continues to eat sloppily, skip meals, binge on sweet treats, and live on junk food--we are not using it as God meant it to be.
continued in part 3
The link between discipline and spiritual growth is something I think most young Christians are aware of in our eager, if rather vague, desire to grow in holiness and maturity. We think of prayer and Bible study and Scripture memory and the discipline inevitably associated with them, and nod our heads determinedly. It's like getting into shape. It's not for nothing that the Bible repeats the metaphor of athleticism in spiritual growth, or that the words 'endure' and 'persevere' are used so many times to encourage us in our spiritual walk.
I think one of the most basic challenges in this area is the struggle to do daily devotions.
During my days on a student's schedule it was such a great temptation to tell myself that I simply didn't have the time. After all, I had pretty good reasons to go with that, especially with morning classes and rush hour and trying to finish last minute readings before class (read: severe motion sickness.) But eventually--since there was no near end in sight--I realized gradually that things were not going to get easier. I finally made an effort to put a stop to this, knowing the effect it was having on my spiritual life. I managed to work in transit time for prayer time, and to shut my mind to my to-do list when it came to doing devotions in the morning, first thing of all, before even checking my phone (a la John Piper) or putting in a load of laundry or getting dressed or eating breakfast or stretches. Because once you try to sneak in 'just one,' it all goes to pieces. And the next thing you know, you're waist-deep in the daily cycle of rushing to clear your list, and that precious window of time for devotions has gone, other things forcibly beckon...
Once it become a habit, it was so much easier. Devotions started to become the one calm spot in the day, prayer time actually refreshing. I got better and better at being able to mentally tune out the clamour of things that needed to be done, and focus thoroughly on my devotions.
I don't say all this as a textbook example, however. For perspective, I'm writing this months after I've wrapped up my student days, and I'm not so tightly wrapped to the dictates of my schedule.
So things should be easier, shouldn't they? No more challenges, right?
Newsflash: they aren't. I've lapsed sadly. Instead of it being easier, as I would have assumed it to be, it's harder. Without that challenge of time, it no longer seems to matter so much whether you do it first thing--or second thing--or not at all. No sense of urgency. I'll start tomorrow--next Monday--and soon everything I had worked hard to make a habit of was gone.
This drove home to me the fact that I can't use my schedule as an excuse. Discipline, when it comes to what truly matters, is something we need both on busy days AND on down days.
Busy schedules are such a real challenge today. And yet they aren't necessarily the evil we make them out to be. Take a look at what changes (small ones, maybe, but changes nevertheless) that you can make in your life without having to wait for your life to change first. Sometimes, perhaps, we need to rethink what we assume is conducive, to realize that conducive--the way we define it--isn't always going to be an option. Which isn't always a bad thing.
So if you'll excuse me, let me go set my alarm for tomorrow morning...
Recently my church ran a short study on how to interpret the Bible, a three-session series based on the first 9 General Principles of Interpretation from Walter A. Henrichsen's book, A Layman's Guide to Interpreting the Bible.
I found these short sessions very helpful, and appreciated how they were so simply and straightforwardly laid out; it didn't make you feel like you were masquerading as a theological student! To be honest, I never gave much thought on how to interpret the Bible, preferring to focus on those more straightforward passages, so yes, it was about time.
Since we all don't have the time to read as many books as we'd like to, I thought I'd summarize those 9 principles for your benefit. You're welcome.
RULE ONE: Work from the assumption that the Bible is authoritative.
Henrichsen identifies 3 forms of authority that every Christian "consciously or unconsciously" relies on:
Tradition, Reason, and the Scriptures.
According to the Reformed belief, the Scriptures should always come first, based on its authority as the Word of God, though that doesn't exclude the validity of the other two forms of authority.
This of course raises the question: how do we know the Bible is inspired by God, is the Word of God? According to Henrichsen, inspiration must follow authority, not the other way around: "Therefore in Bible Study you begin with the issues of authority. It and the question of inspiration which naturally follows are answered when you submit to the Word of God. You may study inspiration as a separate topic, but you only know the Bible to be the inspired Word of God as you place yourself under its authority." Henrichsen uses the example of a passenger about to board a plane bound for Tokyo, even though the captain cannot guarantee a safe journey: "The demand that commitment come before knowledge is not unique to the Christian faith. It is common, everyday experience for all people."
RULE TWO: Use the Bible to interpret the Bible; Scripture best explains Scripture.
When interpreting the Bible, beware of omission and addition, as the disastrous consequences in the Garden of Eden indicate. Likewise, beware of individual verses taken in isolation, as they can often be used to support both sides of an argument and can't be considered conclusive as such. Heinrichsen gives an example of how either Galatians 5:4 ("You have fallen away from grace") might give the impression--taken in isolation--that it's possible for a Christian to lose their salvation; however, as John 10:27-29 shows, this isn't the case: "My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of My hand. My Father, Who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand."
And that's why cross-referencing is important. Primary cross-referencing should be based on thought/topic rather than on specific words, which should be secondary cross-referencing.
RULE THREE: Saving faith and the Holy Spirit are necessary for us to understand and properly interpret the Scriptures.
This was an interesting thought I hadn't considered, which to me underlined the fact that studying the Bible is not like studying any other book. Don't come at it with an attitude of entitlement, expecting the formula of read-understand-benefit that might work with a Tolstoy or a Shakespeare play. When we decide we want to study the Bible it requires a humble attitude, godliness/a clean conscience before God, and prayer for the Holy Spirit's enabling. How much we understand from our study is directly related to our spiritual state.
"Count your blessings, name them one by one...Count your many blessings, see what God has done."
I grew up singing this song and was always slightly skeptical about how simple it made gratitude sound. Even at that age I knew there was a difference between knowing I had many things to be thankful for, and being thankful for them. Talk about counting, I could rattle off a list of blessings I had without necessarily feeling more grateful for them--like saying grace and knowing that though you were grudgingly 'thankful' for food so you didn't have to starve, you weren't thankful for oatmeal all the same.
Thanksgiving, however, is something we are commanded to do in the Bible, because God knows it's something we need to do--something we have to be reminded to do, sometimes.
It's hard to be thankful when your mind is full of things that need to be done. It's like trying to pray with a to-do list for the day in front of you.
I've never seen the correlation between busyness and the challenge of gratefulness before, but looking at it in this way totally makes sense--having actually experienced how hard it is to do devotions with a hundred things on your mind.
We always say that we have so many things to be grateful for (and we usually use the word 'blessings' when we say that) but the truth is that we struggle to actually feel this gratitude we talk so loudly about.
Of the ten lepers Jesus healed in Luke 17, I find it interesting how they were healed halfway on their way to the high priest. Perhaps it was a test of faith, to see if they were willing to start on the journey even before they had been healed. At any rate, the actual healing happened when they had already left Christ. After the initial rejoicing died down, the nine were all focused on finishing the journey, following the right protocol and getting officially declared cleansed as soon as possible. Get to the temple, find high priest, and a hundred other things they wanted to do and could do now they were clean, was probably buzzing in their minds nonstop.
Only one realized that he owed so much to the man they'd left behind, and that they hadn't even thanked Him. And that he might not get the chance again.
And he turned back.
He stopped long enough to realize that though the official cleansing was important, and that his whole life had been given back to him, with all the possibilities and opportunities that meant, it could wait. He stopped to consider the implications, not just the consequences of the miracle which had just happened.
Gratitude doesn't come in instant formulas, like noodles or coffee.
Contrary to being achievement-oriented--even for the right things, as in this case--thankfulness requires that we stop and reflect. One of the reasons God knows that we need to be commanded to be thankful, reminded to be thankful; all too often we're headlong in our schedule, our goals, our duties and responsibilities, even our emotions.
Thankfulness is realizing what we are, and who God is.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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