For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells. – Romans 7:18
The depravity of our fallen nature is, and will be, universally and always felt during our present earthly state. It insinuates into, and mixes with all our thoughts, and all our actions. It is inseparable from us, as the shadow from our bodies when the sun shines upon us.
The holiness of a Christian does not consist in a deliverance from our sin nature, but in being sensible of it, striving against it, and being humbled under it; and taking occasion from thence to admire our Savior, and rejoice in Him as our complete righteousness and sanctification.
The grace of God puts a great deal into the heart, but it takes nothing out. Nature and grace, flesh and spirit, will antagonize each other to the end of life. Therefore the life of a believer, while in the body, is a continual state of warfare.
The apostle felt a law in his members warring against the law of his mind. He would do good, but evil was present with him. He groaned, being burdened.
When we first set out, we hope to be spiritually rich–but the Lord’s purpose is to make us sensible of our extreme poverty. We wish to be something–but He is teaching us that we are nothing.
When indeed we are willing to be nothing, that He may be all in all, in us and for us–then I think we reach the very acme of holiness. Then, while we feel that we have no sufficiency of ourselves, we shall be enabled to do all things that occur in the line of duty, through Him strengthening us.
An awful thing has happened. I was traveling, when, during the night, some of the wicked men of Benjamin arose and came after me with the intent to kill me. They raped and killed my concubine, so I divided up her body parts and sent them to the rest of the people of God so they would know what evil has taken place (Judges 20:3-6 Paraphrased).
In the child of God there is a civil war raging. There is flesh and there is spirit. There is the new nature and there is the remaining indwelling sin, and like Israel’s first civil war, drastic action must be taken. As John Owen once said, “Let no man think to kill sin with few, easy, or gentle strokes.”
The first thing we must do is recognize the evil for what it is. When the Levite learned of the sinfulness at work in Israel, he did not partition it off as something that could be tolerated if they would simply keep it quarantined. He saw it for what it was, and he knew it needed to be killed.
One of the most dangerous aspects of sin is its deceitfulness. It is always trying to convince us that it is not that bad, and we can simply section off our lives and still be happy and spiritually healthy. This is not the case. There is no quarantine that can keep our sinfulness from poisoning every other aspect of our spiritual life. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. We must put it to death.
Once we see the danger, we must take action to kill it. Just as the Levite took drastic action to notify all of Israel of the danger, we too must make sure to sound the alarms. Not only within ourselves, but also to our fellow believers. God has not called us to fight alone. You need to find a band of trustworthy brothers and sisters in Christ to whom you can confide and find help. The purpose of this alliance is to gather strength to kill the enemy. So all the Israelites got together and united as one against the city (Judges 20:11).
Our hope is that this will be an easy war, and our flesh will simply lay down its arms, but this is never the case. As we begin to take this action against our iniquity, our sinfulness will also fortify itself. At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred able young men (Judges 20:15). The strength of the emeny will gather, and there will be causalities in this battle.
The Israelites went out to fight the Benjamites and took up battle positions against them at Gibeah. The Benjamites came out of Gibeah and cut down twenty-two thousand Israelites on the battlefield that day (Judges 20:20-21).
When we face a loss like this, we realize how daunting the enemy truly is, and we wonder if we should continue. The bloody nature of the fight rightfully leads us to the Lord to see if we should go up once again. The Israelites went up and wept before the Lord until evening, and they inquired of the Lord. They said, “Shall we go up again to fight against the Benjamites, our fellow Israelites?” The Lord answered, “Go up against them” (Judges 20:23).
This will always be the Lord’s response when it comes to fighting our indwelling sin. Yes, you are to fight. This command of God to go up against our sin can often lead us to assume the next battle will be easy and the victory painless because he told us to contend. This, however, should not be assumed. The Israelites drew near to Benjamin the second day.This time, when the Benjamites came out from Gibeah to oppose them, they cut down another eighteen thousand Israelites, all of them armed with swords (Judges 20:24-25).
Why would the Lord do that? Why would he tell us to go fight and then let us lose the battle? I believe Israel’s response to the defeat gives us the answer. Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the Lord. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the Lord (Judges 20:24-25).
As we contend with our sinfulness, we will be bloodied and bruised. Maybe you are there now. You have been fighting for some time with no success. The only proper response is to draw up under the wing of your God. As we lose battles, we begin to learn the most important lesson. This battle cannot be won in our own strength.
Much like when God wrestled with Jacob, the contest was not about Jacob getting something out of God, it was about God getting something out of Jacob. One of the most important aspects of that event is that Jacob, when he realized he could not win, went from contending against God at the beginning of the match, to clinging to Him at the end. This is exactly what our failures in our battle with sin should do to us. It should drive us closer to our Lord and cause us to cling more tightly to him.
Know this, this civil war of flesh and Spirit will rage until the day we die, but there will be victories as we lean more and more on God. We may be hesitant to continue the fight, but as you trust less and less in your own power and might and trust more and more in his Spirit, ask Him again if you should fight.
They asked, “Shall we go up again to fight against the Benjamites, our fellow Israelites, or not?” The Lord responded, “Go, for tomorrow I will give them into your hands” (Judges 20:28). The more we know that the battle belongs to the Lord, the more he will give the enemy into our hands. He will use our hand, but it will be his power that is at work.
So how do we begin to fight? How does the Lord direct us to march? “Who of us is to go up first to fight against the Benjamites?” The Lord replied, “Judah shall go first” (Judges 20:18). Jesus is the lion of the tribe of Judah. Though we will win some and lose some, there is only one way in which we should march. Advance with Jesus in the lead. He is our forgiveness and righteousness. If he is our head, then our ultimate victory is assured even if we lose some battles.
Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. – 1 Timothy 6:2
If you want to grow in godliness you need to slow down. What is it about being forced to slow down that makes us want to run faster than we were before? I think it is because, when sickness or some other obstacle hits us, we want to have the will to power through. Whatever it is, slowing down is something we resist, and when we are forced to do it, it is often uncomfortable.
When we have no choice but to slow down, however, we realize we had been taking our time and abilities for granted. On top of that, we realize that though we were running fast, much of it was spent on directionless pursuits. It is amazing how we can feel pressured to check social media, or check a gaming app on our phone. There have been times I have felt like my evening was pressured because I needed to write a blog post, but no one is sitting at their computer waiting for me to post. My mom doesn’t even do that. Still, something inside me says you better get something written soon.
These are small examples, but we fill our days with these types of anxieties. Many of the things that have us running so fast could be eliminated without hurting anyone. Often, the only real negative impact we feel is the effect it has on our pride. We tend to think, “if I am busy, then I am important. People need me to fulfill all of my so-called responsibilities, because if I do not, things will fall apart,” but it is not true. Much of what we feel pressured to do is noise.
We rarely realize this until something hits our life that forces us to start reevaluating. There comes a time when your body or emotional state says, it is time to change pace. At first, we usually think we can work through it, but, in the end, we find that providence is serious about making us slow down. It is at this point that we will hopefully start to gain perspective.
The process is painfully pleasant. A few years ago I found myself in a similar situation. First, I wanted to power through as if my will-power could right all the wrongs with my health. Once I resigned to the fact that I could not do it, I settled in to make some changes. The first thing that I needed to do was to get rid of all the needless distractions that had been adding stress but did nothing to help me be productive with important things.
I started by reevaluating what truly mattered. The key to this was making sure my mind was set on things above, or in other words, making sure I was seeking first the Kingdom of God. I will not talk about this much here because most of my posts deal with this in one way or another, but if we fail to seek Him first, even slowing down cannot help us.
Upon reflection, I found I had filled my life with needless interruptions, and they were not benefiting me in any way. I also began to realize that I did not know I was being distracted because I was not even aware of what I was being distracted from. I believe this is the case for many people.
Then began the process of slowing down and removing needless stress. This process involved deleting apps on my phone, limiting social media time to once a day, and I even began to schedule time on my calendar to check email only three times a day at work, instead of checking it constantly. This reduction was the part that felt painful at first. I felt like I was going to miss out. If much of my productivity happens with email, how could I accomplish all that I needed to get done?
I noticed myself repeatedly looking to my phone for notifications that were no longer available. My brain’s habitual response needed to be retrained and it did not like it. The result of this was that I was not less productive, I was more productive. I had hours in the morning, afternoon, and evening, which were email and social media free. These uninterrupted hours forced me to become more strategic with my time at work and home, instead of wasting it always checking to see if I had new messages and diverting my train of thought. This also gave me more time to do something I enjoy, writing.
Regarding social media and time online, I realized I was not missing out on much. I also noticed that my executive attention, the ability to focus on something for an extended period of time, began to grow stronger. Before I was forced to slow down, I had already realized that the internet had started shrinking my thoughts. I began blogging 2005, that was eventually reduced to Facebook posts, and then I was down to 140 characters on Twitter. Though all of these can be powerful tools if used correctly, sustained thought is not something online platforms encourage. The big takeaway was that my mind was spending much less time flitting from one unimportant thing to another.
I also began to choose my television time much more carefully, and I would always keep my Kindle or a book with me. If I was going to spend time doing something during my free moments, I could at least make it something mindful. I could continue to tell you about more of these little changes, such as how the boredom created by the absence of so much entertainment and social media actually sparked creativity, but I think you are getting the picture. Let me conclude with a few thoughts on the importance of slowing down.
Slowing down is not something we have to be forced to do. It is something we can do even when our health is strong. Jonathan Edwards once said this about a man he honored deeply, David Brainerd.
“[One] imperfection in Mr. Brainerd, which may be observed in the following account of his life, was his being excessive in his labours; not taking due care to proportion his fatigues to his strength.”
Much of what I have written about to this points is removing the unnecessary and unproductive activity from our lives, but sometimes we even need to slow down on that which is worthwhile and godly. Our Lord has put His treasure in jars of clay, and though the outward man is wasting away, the inward man is being renewed day by day. This truth should teach us two things. First, our bodies cannot do it all, and these jars of clay will eventually fade. If we do not slow down, we will soon be forced to. Second, when our bodies force us to slow down, even in our service to God, we are not necessarily reducing our pace in being renewed spiritually, which is the ultimate goal.
It seems our Christian culture has come to believe that overworking and godliness are inextricably bound. If you are not running fast, then you are not redeeming the time. Sometimes, the best path to being spiritually renewed is through slowing down. Maybe it is time to take due care to proportion our fatigues with our strength. In doing this, we find we are redeeming the time more effectively than when we were before.
It is important to remember that doing less does not mean we stop doing difficult work. Much of our most important undertakings are challenging. This is why we often prefer busyness over slowing down. If we are using our frantic pace as a form of procrastination in regard to the things that matter, that type of busyness is actually a form of laziness. In the end, I found during my time of slowing down that I was actually accomplishing more.
A divided mind, one caught between heaven and earth, will never find peace because it is chasing things in two different directions. A heart that is united in the fear of the Lord will be able to slow down and cover more ground because it has only one direction to go. This need to slow down and regain focus, like all battles with the sinful nature, is a daily struggle. Part of what prompted me to write this post is the fact that I have allowed many of these things to begin crowding my life again. We must continually guard our hearts against being pulled away from the Lord and his service by things of little or no importance.
Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth;unite my heart to fear your name. – Psalm 86:11
The storm is a gift. This was the thought that was running through my mind as wave after wave crashed upon me. In part because I knew it was true and partly because I hoped it was true. When the skies turned dark they caught me off guard. I found myself lost in confusion as every bit of my weakness was exposed, but that was only a portion of the battle.
As the tempest raged against me from the outside, something else started happening on the inside. My flesh began to rebel. It had been active for years, as I now realize, but it started to let me know that it was upset. As I entered one of the darkest times of my life, my sinfulness began to rear its head in ways I could have never imagined. It was showing me its power.
I never really saw myself as someone who longed for or loved the things of the world, but the minute the pleasures were no longer available, a passion for them stirred in my soul. The fact that they were no longer at my disposal caused a despondency in my spirit that made me feel ill. I thought, “What if all those days of pleasure are gone? I can’t live without them, they are part of what makes me who I am.” The notion that they were no longer mine was more than I could handle.
It was here that I realized the conflict between flesh and Spirit was clashing within me in a battle more fierce than I could ever remember. The problem is, when you already feel you are spinning out of control because of the circumstances in which you find yourself, this type of inner conflict brings your sinfulness to the surface compounding the trial. Once once my sinfulness was added to the mix, I was devastated. I had nothing left: everything I thought I was standing on was systematically dislodged from beneath me. I don’t think I could have plummeted any lower.
This, however, was exactly were I needed to be. When the conflict between flesh and Spirit heightens within us, it is more often a sign of spiritual progress than decline. When the Lord sends us troubles that are designed to mold us to His image, the first thing we tend to notice is how far we fall short. In other words, sanctified affliction seldom seems sanctified because the Lord is drawing the dross to the surface, but never forget, He is drawing it to the surface to wipe it away.
A.W. Tozer once said, “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply.” This may not sit well with many in the church today, but it is important to remember that God is more concerned with our spiritual growth than our worldly prosperity, and often He will sacrifice the latter to promote the former.
Even the disciples, who had seen Christ perform many miracles, didn’t marvel until it was their own boat that was at stake. We tend see Christ’s power to calm the storm as interesting until it is our life that is on is on the line, then it becomes imperative. Our Savior is not looking for people who admire His power from a distance, His children are the ones who know their very lives depend upon Him. Though everything I thought could support me crumbled beneath me, when it had all been destroyed, I found myself standing on the Rock of Christ Jesus. In an act of God’s grace, the storm killed my idols.
The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts. – Proverbs 17:3
This morning I had the privilege of preaching at First Artesia Christian Reformed Church. We took some time to look at the Cities of Refuge found in the Old Testament and the amazing picture of Jesus they paint for us.
“He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.”—Mal. 3:3
My soul! your Refiner and Purifier is Jesus. Jesus shapes all your trials; Jesus sends all your afflictions; Jesus mingles all your sorrows; Jesus shapes and balances all the clouds of your pilgrimage; Jesus prepares and heats the furnace that refines you as silver and purifies you as gold. Then, O my soul, tremble not at the knife that wounds you, at the flame that scorches you, at the cloud that shades you, at the billows that surge above you–Jesus is in it all, and you are as safe as though you had reached the blissful climate where the vine needs no pruning, and the ore no purifying, where the sky is never darkened, and upon whose golden sands no storms of adversity ever blow or waves of sorrow ever break.
And, O my soul, what deep need is there for this refining and purifying of your Lord. What inward corruption, what carnality, what worldliness, what self-seeking, what creature idolatry, what God-dishonoring unbelief, imperatively demand the searching, burning, purifying fires of Christ’s furnace! And this is the end of all–to take away your sin, and to make you a partaker of the Divine holiness.
And mark the Refiner’s position. “He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.” It would be fatal to his purpose did the smelter and refiner leave his post while the liquid mass was fusing and seething in the furnace. But there he patiently sits, watching and tempering the flame, and removing the refuse and the dross as it floats upon the surface of the molten ore. So Christ sits as a Refiner; and with an eye that never slumbers, and with a patience that never wearies, and with a love that never chills, and with a faithfulness that never falters, watches and controls the process that purifies our hearts, burnishes our graces, sanctifies our nature, and impresses more vividly His own image of loveliness upon our soul. If He places you in the fire, He will bring you through the fire, “that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perishes, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ.”
Sweet and soothing is the truth that the believer is not alone in the fire. The Refiner is with us as with the three children passing through the burning furnace kindled by the king. The Lord will have us polished stones; and as some believers are more rusty and some more alloyed than others, they need a rougher file and a hotter furnace. This may account for the great severity of trial through which some of the Lord’s precious jewels are called to pass. Not less dear to His heart are they for this; it is said God had one Son without corruption, but no son without correction; for “though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered.” Look up, my soul, your Portion is your Refiner. Be still, humble, submissive. The knife is in a Father’s hand, the flame is under a Savior’s control.
Men are so ignorant of their own hearts that they are incapable of determining what is best for them. Even regenerate men are but partially sanctified and enlightened. But God searches the heart. He understands our whole case. He knows what is most for our good. He sees our strong corruptions and sad deficiencies. When, in mercy to His child, He comes to heal his spiritual maladies, He does not take counsel with human reasoning or desires. It is right, it is best that He should act according to the wisdom which is infallible. He employs the requisite remedies. Often they are distasteful to flesh and blood. Sometimes they are frightful to contemplate, and terrible to endure.
Then man, in his ignorance, too often says, “If God loved me—He would not give me so bitter a cup to drink!” But this is man’s folly. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? Shall human weakness control divine power? Shall finite knowledge prescribe to omniscience? It is the height of wickedness for a worm of the dust—to revise the decisions, or pre-judge the justice of the Almighty. We would expect that God would deal with us in an incomprehensible way—if we did but remember how base, sordid, and narrow are our views and plans; and how holy, glorious, and eternal are His purposes and designs.
We are quite prone to magnify both the good and evil things of time—to the disparagement of those of eternity. But when God thwarts, afflicts, and mortifies us—He makes us look at the things which are unseen and eternal. If He racks this body with pain—it is that we may think of our house, not made with hands, eternal, and in the heavens. The shaking of this clay tabernacle forces upon us the recollection that this present world is not our rest—and that we ought to be seeking a heavenly country. If the godliest man on earth had his own way without divine guidance—he would soon be in full march towards destruction!
How kind is God in wisely and mercifully deciding so many things for us! God very mercifully marks out our course for us. God is governor. We are servants. To us belong obedience, submission, acquiescence. It is not ours . . . to guide, to decide what is best, to rule the world, to shape the course of events.
“But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it—Why did you make me like this?” – Romans 9:20
Sovereign Lord, what I most desired you have denied, yet I praise you! On what account, I know not, yet I praise you. You have done it; that silences me. Your will makes it indisputable, and renders it my indispensable duty to your wise determinations. Hitherto I have had no complaint on the conduct of providence; nor shall I complain until all the mazes are explained. Do, then, all your counsel, though all my counsels should come to nothing. Can a person expect favors from God–who will not wait for God’s way and time?
But what does it matter how the affairs of a present world go, if the interests of the next world are secured? The weather-vane is whirled about with every blast, but the iron spire is still at rest, because it cannot be displaced. So, what does it matter though the outward man decays–if the inner man grows? What does it matter though the temporal condition be perplexed–if the conscience is possessed of spiritual peace? I praise you that you interpose your providence, even in disappointing my dearest plans; and do not give me up to the blind desires of my own heart, and to wander at random in counsels of mine own. I can resolve the present case into nothing but your will; yet I rejoice more to resign to your will, and to be submissive to your disposal, than to have my will in every point performed. This is the only way in my private capacity that I can glorify you.
If all things went as I would have them, I could not positively learn the care of God. But when providence, beyond all human probability, twists enterprises out of my hands, and well-resolved designs out of my heart–this clearly shows to me your condescending concern about my lot and life. Thus you take the wise in their own craftiness; for when all my schemes were so well laid, that human policy approved of, and wit itself commended; yet, when you did blow upon them, how did they like rainbows painted on the watery clouds, when thunders break, or boisterous winds attack–scatter into disappointments and pain!
Hence, in the school of providence I am taught some lessons.
Not to look to the appearance of things, but to the power of God, who brings light out of darkness, and calls the things that are not, as though they were.
That from probabilities, impossibilities may spring; while apparent impossibilities dissolve into easy escapes. As for the first, it was very probable that the Egyptians might overtake and put Israel to the sword, yet it became impossible for them to do it. And as for the second it seemed impossible that Israel could escape ruin, when enclosed with insurmountable hills, and swelling seas, and pursued by enraged foes; yet, in what an easy way did they walk to their deliverance!
I am taught to believe, and to give glory to the almighty power of God, when impossibilities throng thick before me.
To see my own finite wisdom to be but folly, that I can neither prevent nor foresee those events which I do not desire.
To hold all my mercies, all my privileges from God, and not from the certainty in which they seem to stand.
Not to think that things are lost, when so they seem to be. When I think I am most sure of some things, they are all on a sudden taken from me; so when lost, they can all of a sudden be restored.
And, lastly, to see the mutable and fickle state of temporal things, and therefore to hold a loose grip on the creature, however dear, however near–and to set my affections on things that are above.
With the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left.– 2 Corinthians 6:7
There are weapons of righteousness for each of our hands. The phrase, “weapons of righteousness,” sometimes translated as, “armor of righteousness,” has been interpreted many ways, from the plausible to the ludicrous. These weapons are often linked to our spiritual armor found in Ephesians 6. Though I do believe there is likely some link to the armor of God, I believe John Calvin was closer to the mark when he linked these weapons to holy conduct and a clear conscience. Understanding it in this way, we can see them as both armor and weapons.
Nothing can hinder us in our work for the Lord more than sin and a troubled conscience. In both of these things, we find ourselves exposed to the attacks of Satan and unable to work to advance the kingdom of God. However, with a righteous life and a clear conscience, we can stand in the midst of adversity and persecution.
The real problem is that in and of ourselves, we have neither. We are guilty and we know it, but in Jesus we find our forgiveness and acceptance in the Beloved. Jesus is the foundation of our armor and weapons of righteousness. None of us have any ability or right to stand in truthful speech and the power of God unless we are in Christ, but with him we can stand with our conscious clear, justified by His blood.
From there we must grow in sanctification. This means we are not only declared righteous, but we also begin to be conformed to His image. If we plan to stand against the prince and the power of the air and the patterns of this world, both justification and sanctification are necessary.
As we grow in the Lord, we become able to work to advance the kingdom of God without any fault being found in our work. We must put aside underhanded ways (2 Cor. 4:2). In this way we can press on in the face of any mistreatment, knowing that we have conducted ourselves according to the word of God.
It is only with these weapons of righteousness that we can stand as servants of God and commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. Treated as impostors, and yet true; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything with our hearts wide open (2 Cor. 6:4-11).
Not that I have already attained, but in my desire to press on, I recently taught a class called Holiness: Seeking the Savior’s Likeness at Bethel Grace Baptist Church. If you are interested, you can listen to the lessons at the links below. Simply click on the link to play, or right-click to download the mp3.