Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Sin, Grace and Sincerity

Recently I heard a story of a family friend who was a believer and is now in the Lord’s Presence due to the passing of death. At one point in his life he realized that he needed the Lord Jesus to save him. He told a friend, “My heart is black and full of sin.” He knew that he needed the grace the Gospel proclaims and did embrace the Lord Jesus and he sincerely sought to be the Lord’s disciple the remainder of his life. What is so striking about this man and his testimony is the simple and powerful godly “sincerity” evidenced in many different ways.

The story of his life and his impact upon others demonstrated for me this truth: Sincerity is indeed the key to understanding how to please God. For we cannot rely on ourselves to achieve moral perfection in our thoughts or behavior, nor can we utilize any other natural gifting or inheritance in this life from our family or social position to please God. Sin has ravaged us and corrupted our being to the core. But God is faithful and in Christ is working in those with faith to heal and restore them to spiritual health.
“The soul-monster of sin has so marred man’s sweet countenance that it is no more like the comeliness God created than the fiend of hell’s similarity to the holy angel which he had been in heaven. But by His grace Christ has undertaken to heal this wound which sin has given to man’s nature. His healing power is at work in His elect, but the cure is not yet so complete that no scars remain; this, then is the uncomeliness which [godly] sincerity covers.” (William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour, Vol. 2 [The Banner of Truth Trust: 1988], pp.54-55)   
I have learned through bitter experience that I have no power or intelligence within myself to keep me from sinning against God and those people closest to me. No amount of training in pious discipline has ever changed the inner orientation of my soul toward satisfying my own self-interests at the expense of other people’s needs. Indeed, I cry out with Paul, “What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me?” (see Romans 7:24) But I found great encouragement in the discovery that God will receive me and my feeble efforts to choose to serve him so long as these are rooted in sincere faith. Though the gap between my desire for holiness and my actual holiness remains God honors my sincerity and meets me in my pain and weakness to progressively make me holy.  

Paul used himself and his co-workers to demonstrate how God does receive those who approach him by faith. “Indeed, this is our boast, the testimony of our conscience: we have behaved in the world with frankness and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God—and all the more towards you.” (2 Corinthians 1:12, NRSV) Paul knew existentially that all good gifts and the soundness of good character in himself were due to God’s love and power operating within him. And this operational power of the Holy Spirit was activated as he continually exercised his faith. 

What a joy to know this truth! What freedom to know that I do not have to fake it and pretend I am not utterly weak and defenseless in myself! What a relief to hear the Lord of Heaven’s Armies say to me: “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name. When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue and honor them. I will reward them with a long life and give them my salvation.” (Psalm 91:14-16, NLT)

The truth of the abundance of God’s grace towards me gives me courage to be bold in prayer and in living. For it is the assurance of mercy that gives me confidence to speak to God. And I would not be seeking mercy if God had not taught me to humble myself. And if I have humbled myself then God can do what I have asked him to do—to make me holy and happy to pursue righteousness. And if this is true of me then I can actually know serve God in the power of the Holy Spirit moment by moment.  
Again, Gurnall states better than I can the effect of humility and thus sincerity towards God:  
“To take care of this problem [of people not praying due to knowledge of their shortcomings] God has provided the promises—which, in any case, are our only ground for prayer—and has made them to fit the tiniest degree of grace [gifted to person with faith]. And as a well-done portrait faces everyone who enters the room, so these promises of the gospel covenant smile upon everyone who sincerely looks to God in Christ.” (The Christian in Complete Armour, Vol. 2, p.57) 

May the Father grant us knowledge and willingness to take him at his word. Show us your ways and correct us so we will walk in the truth and be free through godly sincerity.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Sister Wisdom and the Value of Affliction

            One observation I have consistently come back to, whether regarding myself or other people, is that human beings tend to withdraw from affliction or hardship. Addictions to all kinds of substances or to physical stimuli or aspects of human relations can be explained (at least partially) by this fact of human behavior. We have a fundamental choice to make in life: Grow up by facing afflictions or remain immature and avoid being honest, open and willing to face the truth about ourselves our actual life circumstances.  
In 12-Step recovery groups it is taught that one must come out of denial about one’s behavior, attitudes and actual life circumstance. “We admitted we were powerless over [fill in the blank], that our lives had become unmanageable.” (Step 1) And further, anyone in recovery (who has worked through the 12-step model), will affirm that to find healing from the damage one has done to oneself requires the embrace of affliction and difficulty as one’s friend.
                I recently came across this quote: “Experience is a hard teacher. It gives you the test first and you learn the lesson later.” (source unknown) This rings true for me and many others I know. But how long it takes us to begin to be open to learning the lessons which our experiences in life can teach us? What does it take for us to awaken to the necessity of turning to the Living God, the Creator of the heavens and earth, for knowledge? What keeps us from learning God’s wisdom and thus benefiting from our experience in this life? Is it not our own stubbornness? Is it not the love of folly?
                Sister Wisdom, that most beautiful and noble creation of God, says to human beings: “I called you so often, but you wouldn’t come. I reached out to you, but you paid no attention. You ignored my advice and rejected the correction I offered.” (Proverbs 1:24-25, NLT)
And again, “You simple people, use good judgment. You foolish people, show some understanding. Listen to me! For I have important things to tell you. Everything I say is right, for I speak the truth and detest every kind of deception. My advice is wholesome. There is nothing devious or crooked in it. My words are plain to anyone with understanding, clear to those with knowledge.” (Proverbs 8:5-10)
When that terrible Day comes and all people will have to give an account for what they did with the lives God gave them to live on earth, I am convinced that Sister Wisdom will be there testifying both for and against each one. For she has always been present from the beginnings of the created order (Proverbs 8:22-31) and has persistently testified to human beings regarding God’s truth (Proverbs 1:20-21; 8:1-4).
Our experiences in life, whatever they are, can be of use to us if we are willing to turn to God in true repentance and faith. To the person who is willing to do this the ability to learn from Sister Wisdom is granted. Then our experiences, even the most traumatic and painful affliction, can become invaluable sources of instruction for our souls.
The truth of that is the basis for Paul’s confidently assertion: “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with love.” (Romans 5:3-5)
Read that statement carefully! Is not this the path which Sister Wisdom instructs us to take? For to engage one’s will, to apply the powers of the mind to listen to the truth and to seek to obey God according to the knowledge one is granted is the path of wisdom. And the mark of the person ardently seeking to learn to be wise is that he or she does not run from difficulties in life. Rather, he or she perceives them as means to be spiritually enlightened, for God the Spirit to reform the inner character and to receive assurance of God’s absolute faithfulness to his promises in the Lord Jesus Christ.
May God grant us repentance so we can be instructed in his ways. May he raise up in this time those who are willing to endure hardship as the Lord’s discipline (see Hebrews 12:1-12) and thus be fully equipped to engage in spiritual warfare in the Kingdom (Ephesians 6:10-20).