Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Carnal Spirituality

At my home in the backyard we had a tree that we had severely trimmed back a couple years ago. A couple months ago my wife and I decided that it was necessary to cut this tree down to a stump. This was quite fun for me because we rented a chain saw and I got to cut it down. We thought that would be the end of our project with this tree. However, we have discovered that the roots are alive and are seeking to grow back—both on the stump itself and as far away as 6 feet from the stump.

So based upon advice we received we are now trying to kill the roots of this tree before it damages the brick patio in the yard or the foundation of the house. This is indeed an interesting problem to have! In its natural ordered state, as designed by God, this tree will expand from the roots in order to reproduce itself. This action is built into the nature of the tree as organic life. And so the only way to prevent that new rebounding growth is to kill the tree at the roots.

We who believe on the Lord Jesus, sooner or later, come to a point of self-awareness in which we recognize that the life of the flesh (or as Paul also calls it, the “old person” or “old self”) is still very much alive and that it can grow back into prominence within us. Even after many years of dedicated service to God the “flesh” (Greek: sarx) can assert itself if we chose to feed into it by not daily living by faith in the Lord Jesus. It seems to me that this observation from our experience is plainly illustrated in Paul’s contrast between the “deeds of the flesh” and the “fruit [singular] of the Spirit” and his exhortation to “sow to the Spirit.” (see Galatians 5 & 6)

This point of life experience parallels the explicit teaching of the apostle Paul and gives me further confirmation of what I was taught as a kid—that the Scripture is completely trustworthy and it is wise to heed what it says. For example, Paul argues that the “flesh” (sarx) manipulates the demands of the law of God and thus retains a state of lawlessness by asserting itself as an adequate source for the individual to act to please God. Thus even as a person comes to understand what God’s word affirms and what God has declared regarding what he wants for an individual, it is possible for him or her to become deluded into thinking that God’s good will can be accomplished through “works.” For what is not seen (or intentionally ignored?) is the stubborn inclination of the heart to turn toward spiritual darkness.

Such has been the case for me and I have observed it in many others around me. And the greatest irony is that there are at least several different ways that one can be deceived into maintaining this lie! I suggest the following as some examples.

One is to simply define God’s standard (and thus sin) in a way that is primarily based on formal behavior that can be mastered through discipline. The Pharisees of the Lord’s day (and those around today) would fit this pattern. This form of spiritual delusion will always be exposed because these persons will show evidence of arrogance (usually by being unteachable) and be quite ready to condemn other people who do not conform to their understanding of faith and practice of piety. The believers in Corinth fit this pattern well (see 1 Corinthians 1-4).

Another is to hold onto moral standards that are more or less rigorous but inconsistent; that is, we adopt high moral standards for most of our behavior and morality but make exceptions for certain kinds of behaviors that we want to retain. This starts with “bending” of God’s standards to fit one’s selfish desires, adding a veneer of piety, and expecting God not to notice–and even give his blessing! This effectively divides up into sections the lifestyle and personality of a person who lives this way. If this is maintained long enough the inner self will become divided against itself and these “two spheres” of thought and action will act independently of each other; as though there were two persons living in the same body and manifesting different kind of behavior. At this stage the choice to live a double life (retaining a selective affirmation of faith on the one hand while retaining some pattern of sin on the other) will result in spiritual death unless that person confesses sin to other believers and seeks the Lord’s supernatural healing (James 5).

I am convinced that what I described in the paragraph above is the internal route by which the devil leads people into heretical teaching and confirms a multitude of different manifestations of perversity. Paul confronted this perverse mindset among the believers in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 5-6). Also, the apostle John warned against deception in regard to sin and specifically states that the denial of sin is the hallmark of not knowing (and thus not practicing) the truth (1 John 1:8). He also warns against equivocating the life of the flesh and that of God revealed in Christ.

“Love not the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, there is no love in him for the Father. For all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the show and pride of life—comes not from the Father, but from the world. And the world, with its desire, is passing away, but he who does God’s will continues for ever.” (1 John 2:15-17, New Testament in Modern Speech, Weymouth)

If what I have written is sound and my comments upon Scripture consistent with the integrity of biblical teaching, then I am left with this question: How can I escape from this pattern of living out of the “flesh”? For I cannot escape this anymore than I can escape out of my own body! For the “flesh”, as Paul uses the term, is rooted in me, in my soul and body. The inclination to sin so deeply rooted that only death and resurrection of the body will finally kill it off.

Yet this is not the end of the story, for participation in the death and resurrection of Christ begins now in this life. Is this not where wisdom begins to teach me when I am ready to listen to her instruction about the Lord? Yes, for in God’s wisdom he identified the only way out of the fleshly life—to not be dominated by the thought patterns and behavior characteristic of our bent human nature.

The sacrifice of the Son and his being resurrected from death is the pattern to put into practice in every aspect of life and thought. This sounds great if by this I only imagine that I get to reap the prosperity (in every sense) that can come from God’s life in us. But what of the suffering in the body or periods of apparent dryness of soul? The surpassing value of suffering, hardship and difficulties because of one’s faith is what Paul had to commend to the Corinthian believers.

C.S. Lewis, in his uniquely brilliant way, speaks to how God deals with us in order to move us from carnal religiosity to true spirituality. (Remember that Lewis is expressing truth from the perspective of demons.)  

“You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve.  He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best.”  (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters [HarperOne:1996], pp.39-40)

The aim of the demons’ attempts to accuse and deceive is to get us to turn off the narrow path of obedience to God the Father and faith in the Son of God and submission to the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus wants us to freely embrace his way—the way of death, denial of the “old self”—so we can be filled with the divine life. Carnal persons may be impressed by the nobility of the Lord’s teaching or perhaps his heroic love and self-sacrifice—particularly if they can benefit somehow from it without causing too much inconvenience for them. And this is fine for the demons as it serves their purposes. Yet this will only lead someone into complacency and false assurance; the truth about one’s soul will obscured in the darkness.

Those who remain disciples of the Lord are those who endure and learn to love God in hardship (of all sorts). They learn that it is extremely valuable as a tool in God’s hand and come to not resent the fact that God uses hardship. For they want to strip away the thoughts and behaviors of the flesh which they had learned were acceptable and loved to do. The carnal person cannot and will not do this; for sin and preservation of creature comforts remains very precious. Only the person who will lose his or her life can discover true spiritual life.      

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