Category Archives: Holiness

Feeling Shame Is Not Repentance

“What do you say to people who are dealing with shame from sexual sin?” a longtime friend asked me in a text message.

That question deserves more than a text response, but I wrote, “It could only be the strategy of Satan to allow the shame of one sin to lead you into more sin. And so I would go to Psalm 51—this psalm shows how to deal with shame from sexual sin.  And the prayer for restored joy is a big key.”

Insight from Screwtape

screwtapeThis question from my friend hints at the heart of many struggles in the Christian life—how we respond to the choices we make is just as important as the choices themselves. In popular media when someone is being tempted, it’s common for an angel and a devil to appear, each trying to sway the person toward good or evil. Once a character makes a decision, the devil disappears.

In our everyday experience, however, the tempter never disappears. In fact, he does the most effective work after the supposed “crisis moment.” C. S. Lewis offers insight on this work in The Screwtape Letters

I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact?. . . Catch him at the moment he is really poor in sprit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, “By jove! I am being humble,” and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear.

Our tempter can take our obedience to God and turn it into a source of pride, and he can take our disobedience to God and shame us to the point that we do not repent from our sin, but rather turn to it again and again. Is all shame from Satan? No. But isn’t he the only one that would want to use our shame to lead us into deeper sin?

Insight from Scripture

In Psalm 51, King David prays,

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Here King David acknowledges a proper sense of shame over his sin when he asks God to hide his face from his sins. His sin is ugly and offensive to a holy God. Yet in his repentance, he not only seeks cleansing from sin, but also freedom from shame when he prays, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.”

David knew the tempter remained. After committing adultery with Bathsheba, David was not left alone. He was then tempted to lie, and still the tempter remained. David was then tempted to kill, and still the tempter remained. At each step his response to his sin led him into further sin. Thus, David needed to not only stop doing what he was doing. He also needed to start enjoying God again. He needed not only forgiveness from past sin, but also renewed joy that preserved him from future sin.

Back to Screwtape

Again, we learn from Lewis in The Screwtape Letters:

You will say these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

Shame has its place, but feeling shame over sin is not the same thing as repentance from sin. Shame can come from wounded pride as much as it can come from our love for God. And when we allow the shame of one sin to lead us into more sin, the tempter can focus on small sins and still yield big results.

So ask for joy in the same way you ask for forgiveness, not because you deserve it, but because you need it.

Crack, Meth, Addiction, and the Puritans

In a fascinating piece in The New York Times, “The Rational Choices of Crack Addicts,” Dr. Carl Hart presents his research on how crack and meth addicts choose future monetary rewards instead another high. John Tierney writes:

Like other scientists, he hoped to find a neurological cure to addiction, some mechanism for blocking that dopamine activity in the brain so that people wouldn’t succumb to the otherwise irresistible craving for cocaine, heroin, and other powerfully addictive drugs.

But then, when he began studying addicts, he saw that drugs weren’t so irresistible after all.

“Eighty to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine don’t get addicted,” said Dr. Hart, an associate professor of psychology. “And the small number who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures.” . . .

When the dose of crack was fairly high, the subject would typically choose to keep smoking crack during the day. But when the dose was smaller, he was more likely to pass it up for the $5 in cash or voucher.

“They didn’t fit the caricature of the drug addict who can’t stop once he gets a taste,” Dr. Hart said. “When they were given an alternative to crack, they made rational economic decisions.” [emphasis mine]

When methamphetamine replaced crack as the great drug scourge in the United States, Dr. Hart brought meth addicts into his laboratory for similar experiments—and the results showed similarly rational decisions. He also found that when he raised the alternative reward to $20, every single addict, of meth and crack alike, chose the cash. They knew they wouldn’t receive it until the experiment ended weeks later, but they were still willing to pass up an immediate high. [emphasis mine]

This piece is really interesting on multiple planes. First, it challenges many of the sacred cows of neurological science and behavioral psychology. Second, it highlights some intriguing spiritual truths.

Rationality and Irrationality of Sin

addictSin is simultaneously rational and irrational. Sin typically has a “payoff” associated with it—whether the release of neurochemicals to the brain for some illicit or risky behavior, or the temporary and fleeting gratification of revenge, greed, lust, or hatred. It makes sense, then, that if one’s joy in Christ is minimal, then the payoff of sin would seem more attractive.

But the payoff of sin over-promises and under-delivers. Sin is deceptive—it promises one thing and gives you something else. Sin is always irrational because the payoff is always a lie. Sin promises you the true/good/beautiful and gives you gravel in your mouth instead. Therefore, when our joy and pleasure in Christ is superior to the payoff of sin, we choose Christ over the sin and its payoff.

Puritans and Crack Addicts

So what do the Puritans and crack addicts have in common? In this instance, quite a lot. When a superior pleasure is presented, we choose the superior pleasure. In the case of Dr. Hart’s study, the addicted participants chose the promise of future money over an immediate high. This is like what the Puritan Thomas Chalmers meant when he spoke of the ”expulsive power of a new affection.”

And this is what Jonathan Edwards meant when he spoke of the human pursuit of happiness:

It is not contrary to Christianity that a man should love himself, or, which is the same thing, should love his own happiness. If Christianity did indeed tend to destroy a man’s love to himself, and to his own happiness, it would therein tend to destroy the very spirit of humanity. . . . That a man should love his own happiness, is as necessary to his nature as the faculty of the will is and it is impossible that such a love should be destroyed in any other way than by destroying his being. The saints love their own happiness. Yea, those that are perfect in happiness, the saints and angels in heaven, love their own happiness; otherwise that happiness which God hath given them would be no happiness to them. (Charity and Its Fruits, p. 159.)

Though not a Puritan, Blaise Pascal argued similarly:

All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they may employ, they all strive towards this goal. . . . God alone is man’s true good, and since man abandoned him it is a strange fact that nothing in nature has been found to take his place: stars, sky, earth, elements, plants, cabbages, leeks, animals, insects, calves, serpents, fever, plague, war, famine, vice, adultery, incest. (Pensees, #148.)

Worship Rules All

Because all men seek happiness, all of life is worship.

What you want is what you worship.

What you worship controls you.

How is your worship of God today?

Gospel-Centered Manhood: The Cultivator

How does work fit into a man’s life? Young men in particular hear conflicting answers to this question. Is it a measuring stick for my self-worth? Is it the means to earn a good life for my family and me? Is it a way to actualize my interests and talents? Or is it just an unpleasant necessity in the pursuit of enjoying myself?

The question matters because our view of work affects both how we live and how we relate to God through it. If it’s a measuring stick, we’ll sacrifice anything for it and risk attending more to it than to God. If it’s an unpleasant necessity, we’ll work as little as possible and see work as a curse. If it’s for self-actualization, we’ll only really apply ourselves to things that seem compelling to us. Adopting a wrong vision for work will lead us away from God; but seeing God’s plan for it, especially when we’re young, will lead us to receive work as a gift and undertake it in a way that honors God and brings us joy.

Men especially need to see God’s vision for work because God made us cultivators from the beginning. In Genesis 2, “Man” (Heb. ‘adam) is named for the earth (‘adamah) from which he was made, while “woman” (ishah) is named for the man (ish) from whom she was made. Adam was specifically given the command to “work and keep” the garden (Gen. 2:15), which are words of service and protection. The curse assigned Adam in Genesis 3 deals with his relationship to the soil, emphasizing that cultivation was part of his calling before the fall. 

This doesn’t in any way imply that women cannot or should not work; but it does mean that men have a special responsibility for cultivating the soil. The cultivator works the soils of his life that he might bless others with the fruit of his labor.

Just as we only understand love (or holiness or anything) from seeing it in God, so we only understand cultivation by seeing how God relates to the soils of the world.

1. God works the soil of creation to nourish life.

The Genesis 1 account shows God bringing form and fullness to tohu wabohu, “formless and void” (Gen. 1:2). He makes an ordered world that can support life. God values life, as his blessings on animals and humans show (1:22, 28). He subjected the creation to decay because of humankind’s sin (Gen. 3:17-18, Rom. 8:20-21); but decay isn’t his final will for the world. In general, God wills that the creation produce fruit to nourish physical life and human culture (e.g., Deut. 28:1-12, Rev. 22:1-2).

As cultivators, we are called to participate in bringing growth and health out of creation. As Tim Keller writes in Every Good Endeavor, in cultivation “we are continuing God’s work of forming, filling, and subduing. Whenever we bring order out of chaos, whenever we draw out creative potential, whenever we elaborate and ‘unfold’ creation beyond where it was when we found it, we are following God’s pattern of creative cultural development” (59). When we grow a garden, take care of an animal, or even develop our own physical or mental talents, we cultivate the creation in a way that potentially aligns with God’s will.

And while we can cultivate all kinds of soils, the most significant one we must learn to cultivate is gainful work—that which bears “fruit” for us to live on. Men are called to work in a way that lets us and our families eat if we are able to do so. It’s good to cultivate skills or talents we’re passionate about, but these things must be subject to the soil of gainful employment.

Our teens and 20s offer us great opportunities to discover and develop our talents and passions. It’s a blessing to get paid to do something you love, so use your years to cultivate your talents toward gainful work. Talk to people about jobs you’re interested in; study and practice to develop yourself. But watch out for things that absorb too much time or energy and lead nowhere: rest and recreation are important parts of life, but they’re not meant to govern it (Prov. 12:11).

These years are also time to begin cultivating a God-honoring approach to work. Since God has shaped you to work, begin looking for ways to enjoy what you do. You may start out loving work or hating it; but diligence is an acquired trait, and it is glorifying to God (Col. 3:23). We can also learn to work in a way that doesn’t defraud or dehumanize others: lying or taking credit for others’ work can grease the skids of our reputation, but God hates that kind of practice (Deut. 25:15-16).

2. God cultivates the earth to provide for others from it.

God has no need of anything in creation; rather, he uses it to provide for human and animal life (Ac. 17:25). He gives plants (Gen. 1:30) and animals (Gen. 9:3) for us to eat, showing his providential care for us (see also Psalm 104). Jesus assured his followers that God knows our physical needs and meets them (Matt. 6:25-33), not guaranteeing plenty (cf. Hab. 3:17-19) but illustrating God’s providing love.

Likewise, God calls the cultivator to work to bless others. Jesus assumes that earthly fathers provide for their children (Matt. 7:11). Paul decries someone who refuses to provide for his family as a denier of the faith “worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). If he has a family, the cultivator is responsible to work for their physical needs.

But God wills that we use the fruit of our labor to bless people beyond our family as well. He wired provision for the poor into the fabric of Israel’s life (Lev. 19:9-15, 25:8-55) and held them accountable for failing in it (Isa. 58:1-10). The New Testament community was marked from the beginning with provision for the poor among them (Ac. 2:45; cf. Eph. 4:28). Jesus’ parable of the “rich fool” denounces a man who hoards wealth for himself instead of sharing it with others (Lk. 12:13-21).

You may feel years away from being able to bless others with the fruit of your work—most of us start out with pretty crummy pay and may depend on others for our livelihood for a while. Indeed, we may have times where we are poor and rely on the mercy of others. But there are almost always people with greater needs, and the heart of giving is more important to God than the amount we give (Luke 21:1-4). We can tithe, help support missionaries, or give to meet others’ needs with even a few dollars a month.

3. God cultivates the souls of his people.

Both the Old Testament (Jer. 2:21) and also the New Testament (Jn. 15:1-11) use agricultural imagery to describe God’s relationship to his people. “Harvest” and “fruit” language in the New Testament apply almost exclusively to salvation (Matt. 13:1-30) or sanctification (Gal. 5:22-3). Salvation-cultivation the major work of God in the present age (Jn. 15:1, 1 Cor. 3:9).

We must carry out our work under the salvation-cultivating work of God. We can keep a Sabbath to prevent work from consuming our worship and becoming an idol. We can (and must) preach the gospel to ourselves as workers: our identity rests in Christ alone regardless of our job. The unemployed and poor also belong to God in Christ, and no job makes us more valuable to God.

Regarding others, we can share the gospel with nonbelieving co-workers, encourage Christian ones, and pray for both. We may prioritize family or friends over a better-paying job opportunity. We can look for ways to be salt and light in our workplaces and in the “soils” of our hobbies, sharing the love of God through work and play.

And finally, we can let the difficulties of work lead us to the cross. You will fail in some way in working, and it may be tempting to hide your difficulties in shame. Discuss these struggles with other men; pray for one another as workers. And look to Christ, who really has accomplished the most significant work in any of our lives. His death, resurrection, and ascension offer assurance that we are “perfected for all time” (Heb. 10:14) and will live in God’s new creation for eternity.

* * * * * * * * * *


Gospel-Centered Manhood: Three Correctives

Is Self-Sacrifice Ultimately Selfish?

If sacrificing my interests for another’s sake makes me feel good about myself, is my so-called “act of kindness” selfish at its core?

Most of us don’t know how to answer. Does tithing just make me feel good inside? Do heroes just die just for their own glory? Since we are sometimes blind to the true reasons behind our actions, how can we ever be sure our own motivations aren’t somewhat selfish?

We’re not alone in our altruistic skepticism. According to Judith Lichtenberg in The New York Times,”[T]he view that people never intentionally act to benefit others except to obtain some good for themselves still possesses a powerful lure over our thinking.”

The idea that humans are always motivated by selfishness is called “psychological egoism.” Psychological egoists believe that even if an action seems altruistic, it’s ultimately done for direct or indirect personal gain. The possibility of true self-sacrifice without receiving anything in return is completely ruled out.

Though they may not use the term, many people believe in psychological egoism for two reasons:

  • As economists claim, every rational being behaves in his or her own self-interest.
  • As Christianity teaches, humans are fallen and prone to selfishness.

However, psychological egoism challenges our Christian call to be self-sacrificing like Christ.

Self-interest and Selfishness

Before exploring how psychological egoism and self-sacrifice are at odds, we need to set one thing straight: there is a huge difference between self-interest and selfishness.

The distinction between self-interest and selfishness seems to be so blurred in public discourse that self-interest nearly means selfishness. But this is far from the true definition of self-interest.

Selfishness is a sin, but self-interest is necessary to live out the Christian life. While the Bible clearly condemns selfishness, self-interest is a good thing—it enables us to become well-functioning, contributing members of God’s community. Self-interest motivates us to get up and go to work in the morning, to make friends, to care for our children, to drive carefully to work, and to go to church. It is even in our self-interest to be altruistic. Self-interest is not mutually exclusive from altruism in the Bible.

But is altruism also selfish if you like the way it makes you feel? No. Feeling good after an act of charity or self-sacrifice is not selfish. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

God loves a cheerful giver. That means God wants us to give freely and enjoy the act of giving. Rather than attributing the benefit of cheer we feel after giving to our selfishness, we should accept this joy as a blessing from God. After all, joy is a fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22). Why would God want us to feel bad for doing something good?

God’s Pleasure—and Ours

This brings us to a deeper and more theological question: Is it sinful for a Christian to seek joy and happiness in this life? Aren’t we supposed to seek God, not our pleasure?

To answer questions about our own pleasure, we need to understand a crucial truth about hedonism, or pleasure-seeking. In 1986, John Piper introduced the term “Christian hedonism” in his book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Although the term “Christian hedonism” sounds like an oxymoron, it is not a contradiction at all. We are Christian hedonists because we believe the song of Psalm 16:11: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness and joy, in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

According to Piper, Christian hedonism is desiring the vast, ocean-deep pleasures of God more than the mud-puddle pleasures of wealth, power, or lust. Unfortunately, too many Christians have bought into the lie that God doesn’t want us to be happy. Piper dispels this myth in his essay “What Is Christian Hedonism?

We value most what we delight in most. Pleasure is a gauge that measures how valuable someone or something is to us. Pleasure is the measure of our treasure.

[. . .]

If a friend says to you, “I really enjoy being with you,” you wouldn’t accuse him of being self-centered. Why? Because your friend’s delight in you is the evidence that you have great value in his heart. In fact, you’d be dishonored if he didn’t experience any pleasure in your friendship. The same is true of God.

Even Christ, who offered the ultimate sacrifice in the history of the world, died for joy. Hebrews 12:2 tells us, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross.” Knowing this truth should make our own giving and sacrifice all the more joyful.

I’m Not Afraid to Raise Daughters

I am standing with both of them, the one who looks like me on the left and the one who looks like her father on my right. They are tall, tall as me, and full of the willowy grace of hastily retreating girlhood.

He regards them. He smiles and says, “I’m glad I don’t have daughters.” He means it as a compliment. A lighthearted joke. We smile back and laugh.

I smile, yes—but I am thinking it was funnier the first time someone said it. When they were perched in a shopping cart in tutus, all of two-and-a-half feet tall. How many fathers of sons have said this? How many times? I’m glad I don’t have daughters. Glad. I’m glad about it.

Why, I want to ask? Why glad? Are sons so much easier to raise? There are two of those under my roof as well. What is it about daughters that their absence in your home relieves you? Is it their emotions? Sons have those, too.

But I can see the answer as you look at my girls: how can that sweetness be brought safely to adulthood? Men you understand—the paths of their thinking, the patterns of their acting. If your sons act rashly with women the consequences can be minimized. If my daughters act rashly with men the consequences can be massive.

You think I should be afraid. You ascribe truth to the common crass joke that with a son you only have to worry about one set of sex organs, but with a daughter . . . 

No More Fear Mongering

I reject this analysis of the risk. I reject the fear-mongering apparitions of predatory sons and pregnant daughters as motivators for my parenting. This philosophy believes a pregnant daughter is the worst thing a parent has to fear. This is far from the truth. My greatest concern cannot be that they reach marriage unsullied and unharmed—it must be that they grow to love God above all else. If they make mistakes on the road to adulthood, even mistakes with permanent consequences, we must face them bravely and run to their Savior for forgiveness and help.

Do you think your sons are at less risk to be harmed by wrong decisions? You take too much comfort in their lack of a uterus. You have calculated the risk only in physical terms. There are always consequences for sin—some of them just gestate longer. If you considered my daughters as valuable as if they were your own, you would raise different sons. In all likelihood, one day you will have daughters. Raise sons who choose them well.

I am glad I have daughters. You must hear this: Glad. They are strong and smart and serene. They know what their bodies are capable of. They know what men’s bodies are capable of. They are not afraid of your sons. And neither am I. They will know if your sons are worthy of their attention because their father’s example has hard-wired them to recognize character. Instead of intimidating someone else’s sons at the front door, he has wooed the hearts of his daughters every day of their lives. I am glad I have daughters, and by God’s grace the father of their husbands will be glad I had them, too.

You do not mean to offend or challenge. I know this. My head measures your words and finds no fault, but my heart measures the culture that has taught you to repeat these lines. You catch me at a vulnerable moment.

They are running—running, I tell you—toward womanhood. No more tutus and sequined shoes. The heavy-lashed eyes of their dolls have long grown accustomed to the darkness on the highest shelf in the closet. On a day not far distant those two rumpled beds will remain neatly made side by side in the room they share. There will be no more jumbles of hangerless clothes, no twisted cords of curling irons, no fine dust of beauty products adhered to the sink top with a film of hairspray. They will be gone. Let it be known that there has been gladness in their growing and going. Let it be known that I have been glad beyond measure.

Down with the Tyrant!

Tyrannical rule normally ends badly. Bullying bishops, strong-handed elders, and death-dealing dictators often see their abusive power structures collapse under their own weight. However, the timing of such events is far less predictable. Nations and organizations will labor years under over-bearing leaders who sustain their power by constructing false narratives, playing on fears, and using old-fashioned intimidation. Even when removed from power, authoritarian leaders frequently haunt their former dominions.

Unfortunately, similar dynamics operate in our spiritual lives.

As Christians, we follow a victorious King who, rising from the dead, overthrows the usurping tyrant of the world, Satan (Lk. 4:5-7; 11:14-23). Indeed, Satan’s grip, holding us in death, is an abusive and de-humanizing exercise of power. He is bent on destruction, twisting and maiming his subjects for his own ends. However, Jesus, submitting to death on the cross, destroyed Satan’s dominion by rising from the dead (Heb. 2:14-15). Death could not hold “the Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14) because Satan had no rightful claim upon him (Acts 2:24, 31). Evil over-reached, and in so doing, destroyed itself.

However, though defeated, Satan’s power is not yet vanquished (Eph. 4:27; 6:11; 2 Cor. 2:11; 1 Pet. 5:8). His shadow lingers as he continues to impose his defunct authority.

Unfortunately, Christians frequently fail to appreciate the connections between their daily struggles with sin and this unfolding cosmic drama. But they are real and important to recognize, no matter how allergic we are to talk of the supernatural world.

Prior to our conversion, we are slaves of this tyrant (Rom. 6:15-20). Like Pharaoh, Satan is a ruthless taskmaster, demanding more bricks be made from less and less straw. Yet we do his bidding, willingly. Tragically, we are sympathetic to our master’s agenda, even though he exploits us, paying horrendous wages (Rom. 6:23).

Fortunately, God has rescued us from the iron fist of the tyrant. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, he has toppled the Devil’s power, transferring us from the dominion of sin and death into the realm of grace and righteousness (Rom. 6:11, 14, 17-18; Col. 1:13).

Audacious Truth

So what does this mean for the Christian daily dealing with sin?

First, we are free from the tyrant’s accusations. This is what Satan does, he accuses (in Hebrew “Satan” literally means, “the accuser”). However, in Christ, he has no power to condemn us (Rom. 8:31). Consider what John writes in Revelation 12:10-11:

And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”

Satan seeks to hold us in his power by accusing us, burdening our conscience with guilt and shame. Like Victor Hugo’s infamous Javert, Satan knows only accusation, failing to comprehend grace. But Christ has destroyed his power, settling the legal demands, and bringing an end to his charges (Col. 2:14-15). Therefore, don’t allow Satan to take up authority where he has none. His accusations have been erased—forever nullified—by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Take hold of Jesus’ victory in faith and silence the indictment of our enemy.

Second, we are free from the tyrant’s control. Once slaves, now we are sons (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:7). As sons, we are again slaves, but slaves of a new Master—Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:16-18). He exercises his authority over us, not to destroy, but to free us. Yes, we are under authority, but a new kind of authority, one that gives life, leading us unto love and righteousness (Rom. 6:18, 22; 1 John 3:9-10).

As Christians, our great challenge is to believe the audacious truths that God’s grace bestows on us when we are united to Jesus. As newly emancipated slaves, we don’t always know how to handle grace. Long accustomed to the brutality of the tyrant, our categories don’t allow for such freedom. But consider what Paul writes in Romans 6:17-18:

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.

When we believe in Jesus (this is what Paul means by saying “become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching”), we are set free from sin’s tyranny over us. In other words, God emancipates us at conversion. No longer slaves of sin, we are slaves of God empowered to bear fruit (Rom. 6:22; 7:4). New life, from the risen Jesus, fills our bodies, motivating, enabling, and sustaining us as we follow our new Master.

Our challenge is to live by faith, trusting that Jesus has liberated us. In such faith, we then progressively put sin to death and bear fruit for God. Certainly, we are not to expect perfection (1 Jn. 1:8, 10), but we are also not to presume mediocrity (1 Jn. 3:3-8). The former makes too little of sin while the latter makes too little of grace. The Spirit of Christ lives within us, granting us a new heart with new affections and capabilities (Rom. 8:9-11).

Jesus frees us from Satan’s accusations and tyranny, allowing us to follow him as slaves of righteousness. Don’t allow the tyrant to trespass into realms where his authority has been dismissed. Take up your freedom, given in Christ Jesus, and experience the liberating power of grace.

Why Did Jesus Take on Human Flesh?

With Advent underway, our schedules rapidly accelerate with parties, school plays, church events, travel, and family outings. Frequently, the pace numbs our heart and mind to the good news we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas. We end up happier when Christmas has passed, because we don’t have to think anymore about how the Grinch managed to steal it.

Personally, it has been a help to meditate on this question in the middle of a chaotic Advent, “Why did Jesus take on human flesh?” Though the Bible offers many answers to this question, consider this: Jesus took on flesh in order to crucify our flesh.

There is a range of meanings for “flesh” in the New Testament. Sometimes it refers to a physical body (ex. 2 Cor. 4:11) while at others it refers to our way of life, under the dominion of sin, prior to conversion (ex. Rom. 8:6-8). My answer plays on this range of meaning because Jesus had a physical body, but was not a sinner.

In Galatians 5:24, Paul writes, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with it passions and desires.” Here, the “flesh” refers to our pre-converted existence—the old self under the dominion of sin. In this condition, we were both hostile to God and alienated from him, enslaved to the power of sin. But God has done something about our predicament. For those who belong to Christ, the flesh has been executed—may it rest in peace.

How did this happen? Is the flesh crucified after a lot of effort on our part? If so, what regimen enables this? Or does the flesh die in another way?

According to Paul, our flesh dies when we are united to Jesus in baptism. He is not speaking of a process, but rather an event. Consider Colossians 2:11-12:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

When we are joined to Jesus, we are crucified with him (Gal. 2:20). In other words, the violence done to Jesus’ body is the same violence done to our flesh. So if Jesus died, and we are united to him, then our flesh has died as well. And, if Jesus rose, we have also risen to new life (and will rise physically one day)! This is one of the many gracious benefits God gives to those who are united to his Son, Jesus Christ. His death becomes our death, and his life, our life (Rom. 6:5-11; 8:1-11;j Col. 3:1-11). Life flows into us through Christ, our living Head (Col. 2:19; Eph. 4:15-16).

No Longer Enslaved

So what does this mean for us?

Chiefly, it means that we are no longer enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:7). We have been set free from the flesh’s control (Rom. 7:5-6). Certainly, sin remains in us. But we are no longer subject to its tyranny. We are liberated into a new life—free to struggle against sin, no longer condemned to struggle under sin.

Given our daily experience, we don’t always feel this way. In the 1990 romantic comedy Pretty Woman, writer J. F. Lawton brings our struggle to expression. Richard Gere, a lonely but powerful businessman, says to Julia Roberts, a prostitute hired for companionship, “I believe you a very bright and very special woman.” She replies, “The bad things are easier to believe.” This is our dilemma as well. The bad things—our feelings of hopelessness in sin—are easier to believe. As Roberts’s character struggled to believe she was bright and special, we struggle to believe the objective realities that are true of us in Christ.

Fortunately, the accomplishments of God’s grace do not bow to the whims of our feelings. If Jesus died, then our flesh is dead. If Jesus rose, then God has raised us to new life in the Spirit. That is the truth about the Christian.

This is where we must begin to battle sin. It begins in faith. In Romans 6:11, Paul instructs us to consider ourselves—an act of faith—as “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ.” Indeed, justification and sanctification are by faith. Then, in the power of the Spirit, we advance to the front line, putting specific sins to death, in the full confidence that the power of the flesh has already been defeated. As Herman Ridderbos wrote, “They must fight their battle in the certainty that their enemy has been overcome” (Paul, 209). We cannot battle sin without first being liberated from the flesh through the death of Jesus.

So how do you consider yourself? Do you consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God? Or do you consider yourself forgiven but dead in sin? Friends, we are forgiven, counted righteous through faith in Jesus, and made alive in Christ (Eph. 2:4). You may deal every day with sin, but that sin does not reign over you. You are liberated from its power!

Relish this truth. Feast upon Christ in faith, and all that God promises to us in him. And, may the historical reality of Jesus’ flesh, and the death he died, become the basis of a new reality in your life as you put to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13).

The Self-Righteous Wife

I’ve spoken to newly married girlfriends who have shared their frustrations with their new spouse. There is generally some area that the women wish their husbands would improve on, and they are growing weary waiting. We generally come to the same conclusion—their husbands may need to grow, but perhaps the wives are struggling with being judgmental and self-righteous. We can look at our men, see sin, and be too quick and eager to point it out.

I relate. That was me.

I remember my wedding like it was yesterday. It was a cold, yet beautiful December day. All of our decorations were red, white, and green to reflect the season. It was exactly what we hoped it would be and more.

After the honeymoon we returned to our home eager to start our new lives together as one. But soon the fairytale ended and real life began. It didn’t look quite like I had imagined. There were no glaring problems. No deep-rooted sin issues. Yet I was extremely aware of my husband’s shortcomings, and I wasn’t holding back on sharing my thoughts.

I was quick to point out sin and eager to share “observations” about how he could change or grow as a leader, all under the pretense of being his helpmeet. I judged my husband harshly our first year of marriage. I was quite self-righteous. I thought I was right, and I played the role of his “holy spirit.” Like I said, I masked it as being his helpmeet. Wrong!

Wasn’t I helping him by sharing my wisdom and insights into every single part of his life? Surely he needed my help to become a godly man. (Obviously I’m speaking tongue-and-cheek.) I was filled with self-righteousness and self-absorption. There was a plank in my eye the size of a California redwood, but all I could see was the speck in his (Matthew 7:3).

Tongue for Blessing and Cursing

James addresses the problem of the self-righteousness. “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10). With my tongue I would bless the Lord and curse my husband made in the image of God. Though God views my husband as clothed with Christ’s righteousness, there were times when all I saw were filthy rags.

Most of my corrections stemmed from a desire to fill some perceived need of mine and had little to do with his sanctification. My desire was that he would change for me, not to please and glorify God. My observations were generally (not always) selfish.

Again James helps us see why we might quarrel for selfish gain. He writes, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder” (James 4:1-2). Though we did not always fight outwardly, my heart was often committing murder. I would be angry and harsh. My “needs” weren’t being met, and so I would fight.

Growing in Grace

I am aware I am not alone. We’re not all patiently waiting for our husbands to change and grow. We can be judgmental, angry, and often accusatory. When we fixate on little preferences the result can be extremely damaging. We can become dissatisfied, bitter, and even long for another man. Women, we can be hard on our men. We have to remember that there isn’t one-size-fits-all for godliness.

But most of all, we must pray for them. Our job isn’t to be their “holy spirit” by calling out every sin we sight. Thank God, our heavenly Father doesn’t treat us like that. God is gentle and kind, slow to anger and abounding in love. God can help us learn to love our husband with a love that is tender and kind and filled with affection and grace.

Now, nine years later, I’m still learning how to lovingly help my husband, but even more I am learning how to enjoy him. I have grown in looking for areas of grace and gifts. God has helped me use my tongue to encourage, build up, and praise him for how God has made him, rather than tear him down for how God didn’t make him.

And just as I’m not surprised by my sin, I’m equally unsurprised that God would help me grow in this area. God works all things together for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). He provides a way of escape for our sinful self-righteousness (1 Corinthians 10:13). He promises to finish the good work he began in you and in me (Philippians 1:6). This is good news for us! God is faithful.

Amazingly, even when I fell into the temptation to judge my husband God remained unswervingly committed to forgiving me because my sin—not in part but the whole—is covered in the blood of Jesus Christ. And sister, so is yours.

5 Signs You Glorify Self

It is important to recognize the harvest of self-glory in you and in your ministry. May God use this list to give you diagnostic wisdom. May he use it to expose your heart and to redirect your ministry.

Self-glory will cause you to:

1. Parade in public what should be kept in private.

The Pharisees live for us as a primary example. Because they saw their lives as glorious, they were quick to parade that glory before watching eyes. The more you think you’ve arrived and the less you see yourself as daily needing rescuing grace, the more you will tend to be self-referencing and self-congratulating. Because you are attentive to self-glory, you will work to get greater glory even when you aren’t aware that you’re doing it. You will tend to tell personal stories that make you the hero. You will find ways, in public settings, of talking about private acts of faith. Because you think you’re worthy of acclaim, you will seek the acclaim of others by finding ways to present yourself as “godly.”

I know most pastors reading this column will think they would never do this. But I am convinced there is a whole lot more “righteousness parading” in pastoral ministry than we would tend to think. It is one of the reasons I find pastors’ conferences, presbytery meetings, general assemblies, ministeriums, and church planting gatherings uncomfortable at times. Around the table after a session, these gatherings can degenerate into a pastoral ministry “spitting contest” where we are tempted to be less than honest about what’s really going on in our hearts and ministries. After celebrating the glory of the grace of the gospel there is way too much self-congratulatory glory taking by people who seem to need more acclaim than they deserve.

2. Be way too self-referencing.

We all know it, we’ve all seen it, we’ve all been uncomfortable with it, and we’ve all done it. Proud people tend to talk about themselves a lot. Proud people tend to like their opinions more than the opinions of others. Proud people think their stories are more interesting and engaging than others. Proud people think they know and understand more than others. Proud people think they’ve earned the right to be heard. Proud people, because they are basically proud of what they know and what they’ve done, talk a lot about both. Proud people don’t reference weakness. Proud people don’t talk about failure. Proud people don’t confess sin. So proud people are better at putting the spotlight on themselves than they are at shining the light of their stories and opinions on God’s glorious and utterly undeserved grace.

3. Talk when you should be quiet.

When you think you’ve arrived, you are quite proud of and confident in your opinions. You trust your opinions, so you are not as interested in the opinions of others as you should be. You will tend to want your thoughts, perspectives, and viewpoints to win the day in any given meeting or conversation. This means you will be way more comfortable than you should be with dominating a gathering with your talk. You will fail to see that in a multitude of counsel there is wisdom. You will fail to see the essential ministry of the body of Christ in your life. You will fail to recognize your bias and spiritual blindness. So you won’t come to meetings formal or informal with a personal sense of need for what others have to offer, and you will control the talk more than you should.

4. Be quiet when you should speak.

Self-glory can go the other way as well. Leaders who are too self-confident, who unwittingly attribute to themselves what could only have been accomplished by grace, often see meetings as a waste of time. Because they are proud, they are too independent, so meetings tend to be viewed as an irritating and unhelpful interruption of an already overburdened ministry schedule. Because of this they will either blow meetings off or tolerate the gathering, attempting to bring it to a close as quickly as possible. So they don’t throw their ideas out for consideration and evaluation because, frankly, they don’t think they need it. And when their ideas are on the table and being debated, they don’t jump into the fray, because they think that what they have opined or proposed simply doesn’t need to be defended. Self-glory will cause you to speak too much when you should listen and to feel no need to speak when you surely should.

5. Care too much about what people think about you.

When you have fallen into thinking that you’re something, you want people to recognize the something. Again, you see this in the Pharisees: personal assessments of self-glory always lead to glory-seeking behavior. People who think they have arrived can become all too aware of how others respond to them. Because you’re hyper-vigilant, watching the way the people in your ministry respond, you probably don’t even realize how you do things for self-acclaim.

Sadly, we often minister the gospel of Jesus Christ for the sake of our own glory, not for the glory of Christ or the redemption of the people under our care. I have done this. I have thought during the preparation for a sermon that a certain point, put a certain way, would win a detractor, and I have watched for certain people’s reactions as I have preached. In these moments, in the preaching and preparation of a sermon, I had forsaken my calling as the ambassador of the eternal glory of another for the purpose of my acquiring the temporary praise of men.

Next week we’ll look at five more signs the pursuit of self-glory shapes your ministry.

Confession Time for Pastors

When the dirty task (washing the soiled feet of proud disciples) had been completed, Jesus looked at his disciples and said, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to also wash one another’s feet.” Christ is saying, “The attitude I have had toward you, you must have toward one another. My sense of calling must become your sense of calling. The willingness that I have exhibited, you must live out in your ministries.” What is that attitude? What is the commitment that must shape the ministry of every pastor?

You and I must not become pastors all too aware of our positions. We must not give way to protecting and polishing our power and prominence. We must resist feeling privileged, special, or in a different category. We must not think of ourselves as deserving or entitled. We must not demand to be treated differently or to be put on some ministry pedestal. We must not minister from above, but from alongside.

What is the grand lesson, the grand calling of this startling moment? Jesus says, “If you’re not greater than your master, and he has been willing to do this disgusting thing, you must also be willing. If you are my ambassadors, called to represent my will and way, called to be tools of my redeeming grace, then there must be no ministry task that you think is beneath you. You must be willing to do the lowest, most debased thing so that my work and my will be done. You must not refuse. You must not think of yourself as too good. You must be willing to be the lowest of slaves in order that my kingdom may come. You must not be too proud.”

More Highly than We Ought

Let’s be honest, pastors. We are tempted to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think. At times, we chafe against things that we think are beneath our pay grade. We are not always willing to do the dirty work of the ministry. I know I’m not always ready and willing. We are too oriented to reputation, position, and power. We desire to be recognized and to be prominent. We are not attracted to redemptive servitude. We want our ministries to be clean and comfortable.  We tend to think of ourselves as more movers and shakers than servants. This doesn’t happen because you’re getting your identity as an ambassador. No, if you and I think any kingdom work is beneath us, we have become identity amnesiacs. And there is a short step between forgetting your assigned position and inserting yourself into God’s position.

The amazing example and commission of Christ should produce grief that leads to confession. We lose our way. We become more masters than servants. In our heart of hearts we know that we will never become what we have been called to become unless we’re rescued by the same grace we have been commissioned to proclaim and live before others. And we don’t have to fear that our silly, delusional, and unearned pride will cause the Father to turn his back on us. He knows who we are. He knows we don’t measure up. He knows we still fall short of his righteous requirement; that’s why he has given us the gift of his Son. We can run to him and admit to embarrassing self-glory and know he won’t embarrass us or slap us away, because our standing before him is not based on our performance but on the spotless performance of his Son.

So, with me right here, right now make the confession that you need to make. Cry for the help that you need. Your Savior is near, and he is both willing and able.