A man I know refuses to ask himself, “Why?” When sexual temptations entice, he grits his teeth and orders himself, “Resist!” When other people irritate him, he furrows his brow and wills himself, “Be nice.” When anxious feelings rear their heads, he decapitates them with a hearty, “Be gone!”
But the thing is—and I’m not sure how to phrase this—he seems a bit arrogant. He handles life so very well; what’s wrong with the rest of us? His advice to sufferers is, “Don’t do it,” “Be happy,” “Suck it up,” or “Just stop!”
If I’m ever hurting … well … his number is not on my speed-dial.
Another man I know came to me a year ago because someone told him he complains too much. He asked me what I thought.
The truth was he did complain a lot. Grumbling seemed the bass-drum beat of his conversational style: “My wife is a slob,” “My boss it too demanding,” “My colleagues are unappreciative,” and “No one wants to talk with me.”
Yikes! I wasn’t sure how to answer him, but I uneasily admitted that he might grumble more than most. I asked him “Why?” He left in a huff, determined never to complain again (though I’ve wondered since if he complained to his wife about me).
A few months later he was no longer complaining. He was angry; livid with his wife for her housekeeping; angry at his boss for an assignment, and furious with co-workers for their ingratitude. He had exchanged self-pitying complaints for an other-blaming fury.
It was not an improvement.
We need to recognize a spiritual principle
External “sins” arise from inner forces. There is a stimulus beneath the sin. Our constant complaining (anxiety or frustration) is the result of inner pressures on the heart. Willful cessation of external sin does nothing to relieve that inner pressure.
Until we deal with that inner pressure, it will find an escape in other forms. Whining yields to rage, lust gives birth to lethargy, and gluttony nourishes greed. Treating the symptoms instead of the cause is like putting a band-aid on a broken arm.
Besides, will-power runs out
Each of us is born with a natural reservoir of resolve. Our self-control takes various forms. Some endure crying babies for hours while others control tempers for years; some have physical stamina while others have seemingly limitless people-patience.
But our will-power is only seemingly limitless. My tank may hold ten gallons and your tank may hold twenty gallons, but empty is empty for everyone.
What do we do when our supposed inexhaustible self-discipline is exhausted?
We explode. Oh, we explode in different ways. Some actually implode and sulk in self-pity; some literally explode in rage and resentment; some freeze up with paralyzing anxiety; some cheat on their spouse, drink themselves blind, or swindle their partners.
Habits of the heart and Sinvitation
Repetition is a tool that creates instinctive behavior. Musicians practice scales and tennis players practice serves. Over time muscle memory causes them to act instinctively, and that’s good. Usually.
Long-term appeal to will-power also creates instinctive behavior; it creates self-reliance on personal resolve. No matter how good the short-term behavior is, our long-term instinct has become to rely on ourselves. The habit of our heart is personal will.
What happens when that resolve runs out? The rains fall, the rivers rise, the winds blow, and the house built on sand falls. Because will-power is an exhaustible resource.
There is another way. We can let our sin drive us to God.
Contrary to all we think or feel (or have been taught), sin can be an invitation to intimacy with Christ. We may think or feel (or been taught) that we need to clean up our act to come to God, but we can’t actually clean up our act until we come to God.
Each of us employs various prayer triggers: morning-time devotions, mealtime prayer, or stress-time intercession. Let’s create another trigger: temptation-time Why?
It may seem upside down, but our sin is an invitation to intimacy with God.
A new habit of the heart
Scriptures insist that “unless the Lord builds the house, the laborer’s work is useless” (Psalm 127:1), but our hearts habitually act on our own. We say to God, “Just give me the blueprints,” and we grit our teeth, furrow our brow, and start laying brick.
God didn’t come to earth to give us more moral blueprints or doctrinal design plans. He shed his blood to make us friends, co-laborers in the construction. God wants friends, not independent contractors.
Going to God with the why’s of our lives builds moment-by-moment conversation.
This is not navel-gazing; it is God-gazing. This is not self-focus; it is conversation with the creator. This is not psycho-babble; it is a visit with the world’s greatest healer.
Let’s choose Door Number Three
Self-reliance on will-power has only two results: misery when we fail or smugness when we succeed. Despair drags others down with us; pride drives others down under us.
There is a third door. When tempted to ridicule a friend or rob a bank, resist! But let’s not rest in our weak resistance. Let’s pound on the doors of heaven and ask “Why? What deep pressure on my heart makes this temptation so attractive?”
We swing back and forth between resignation (despair, giving up, feelings of futility, false humility, lethargy) and control (pride, sin management). Each of these states of being keep us from being able to be fully alive. They are an invitation to come to the Father for life.
Beliefs of the Heart
I like the way you display the results of our swinging back and forth between despair and pride: “Each of these states of being keep us from being able to be fully alive.”
EXACTLY! Being “fully” alive means having our spirits–or our true hearts–awakened and enriched. We can be physically living while spiritually, heartfully, dead.
God doesn’t want mere functioning robots; he wants a living, breathing conversational relationship with us.
Come Father and speak into our hearts.
Wow, terrific piece. So many good observations here. But I think my favorite line was: “It was not an improvement.” 🙂
Beliefs of the Heart
Yeah, I liked that line too 🙂 . The thing is, unfortunately for me, too many of my own self-help projects could be described the same way: They were not an improvement.
I really think this article was written to me (and about me) as much as to or about anyone else. I have–and I think most of us have–this quick, knee-jerk response to just fix ourselves. We turn our tool-shed into an outhouse.
God wants a relationship with us, a real, conversational, day-today hearing of him. He wants to turn the tool-shed into a mansion. I’m focusing on the color of the door; he is considering buying the neighboring lots for expansion.
I really like this piece – may our struggles and failings truly drive us to the mercy seat of the Lord. That’s a powerful and holy desire. Its probably not fair to criticize a short essay for what it lacks, but I think there’s a fuller picture that says there’s another possibility for something that might look externally like your first friend in action. I agree that treating the symptom and not the cause can’t lead to healing, but doing the right and true thing out of a Romans 12:2 renewal can. Reliance on God and his grace to cultivate virtue – so that we can do the right thing in a steady humility (and not the smugness of will power) is what I’m getting at. Maybe I’m just trying to describe more of what’s behind door number three – resisting in the Lord which cultivates deep rooted virtue, that in perseverance builds true freedom when the allure of temptations that once vexed us are truly seen as empty and more easily passed by on the pilgrim path to heaven.
Beliefs of the Heart
Please! Criticize away (although you didn’t really criticize). I want this blog to be a place to discuss things. What are the chances that any one of us may nuance a thing perfectly? Pretty low. But … together, we have a much better chance.
I don’t want to ignore behavior altogether. as I said, if you are tempted to verbally abuse someone, DON’T DO IT! Bad behavior brings bad consequences to those around us (and to us).
But–and here is the thing–two people can look the same on the outside but be operating out of two entirely different heart motivations. One can be changed from the inside by the grace of the Holy Spirit and one can be operating out of a self, self-centered need to look good.
The reason Jesus so often challenged the Pharisees was primarily not their bad behavior (though sometimes he challenged their hypocrisy); his main challenge was the GOOD behavior from bad reasons. They washed the outside of the cup not the inside. I don’t want us to ignore the outside; but i also don’t want us to ignore the inside.
Your passage from Romans 2:2 is great: “Do not be conformed to this world, but continually be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may be able to determine what God’s will is—what is proper, pleasing, and perfect.”
We aren’t transformed by external actions but a renewing of our heart’s understanding, by a deep grasp of the gospel; by going to God for His help.
In the end, God is not merely looking for moral mortals; he is creating new hearts and minds (and of course behavior) that is shaped by a new relationship with him. In the end, does our moral behavior point to us (“look what a good person he/she is”) or does our life point to Christ?
Thanks for the comment. And, please!, disagree more. Dialogue among believers who disagree and love … well, that is some of the love that can win the world.
Brian, good comments. That was my reaction too.
The most helpful point of the blog is the invitation to turn to God with our temptations. When we ask God questions he is able to answer, but I think he finds it much harder when we don’t ask. Asking “why am I tempted to steal” (even if we have no intention of stealing) allows God to reveal to us an inner orientation “you don’t trust me to provide for you the things that will make you happy” or “You desire to look prosperous to others, but you are forgetting that I have already made you the son of the supreme king of all the universe.” I think when we face temptation we have to both wash the outside and the inside, meaning, we have to both make a decision (will) to do right, AND ask God why we are tempted.
On the other hand, what the blog fails to articulate is how God can actually transform not only our hearts, but our wills too. Yes, there is real danger in relying only on will power and not allowing God to transform our hearts. But isn’t the purpose of the Spirit to remake our hearts and our will (the heart is the seat of our will). Does there come a point in our lives when our ‘will power’ is not longer OUR power, but rather God’s power because he has remade our hearts “and I will write my law about their hearts and put a new spirit within them.” I think as a Christian matures, exercising will power IS actually going to God for help because God is the one who has remade the will. But that is the key- remembering that it is God who works in us, but to will and to do, according to his good pleasure.”
Beliefs of the Heart
One more thought. Nicodemus was a good man and a Pharisee, but there is no sense of a hypocritical nature in his Pharisaism. And yet Jesus said his goodness wasn’t enough, he needed the regeneration of the Holy Spirit inside him. We need God.
As Flannery O’Conner once said, there are two ways to avoid Jesus: being really bad or being really good. She wasn’t saying goodness is bad, she was saying our goodness can keep us from going to God for the deepest, true goodness that can only come from him.
Beliefs of the Heart
Thanks for the thanks!
Great post Sam!
Making the Lord’s law my delight is something that has been on my heart the last couple days. Recently heard a sermon on Romans 7:22-25. It’s a tough passage to hear, but the takeaway was good: let the Lord inspire you to greater dependence on Him for all the details of life, including tough-to-get-rid-of sin. Like you say, “Unless the Lord builds the house…” This way we can not only go to God with the why’s of our lives, but let Him create the “why’s” within us!
Beliefs of the Heart
Great reminder about Romans 7:22-25: For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
And I love your closing line: “we can not only go to God with the why’s of our lives, but let Him create the “why’s” within us!”
One of your best Sam!!!
Some great quotable quotes. The skeptics of this age would tell us that our God is a product of our (overactive?) imaginations, a construct that fills the gaps in our understanding and allows us to feel good about ourselves. We correctly reject the skeptics’ assertion, but unfortunately we too often reduce the gospel’s liberating message to another popular psychology self-help program devoid of any transcendence.
Temptations should drive us to Jesus, failures usually drive us to Jesus, successes should drive us to Jesus, unanswerable questions should drive us to Jesus. (Perhaps questions with “obvious” answers should drive us to Jesus.) As Dallas Willard and Darrell Amy would attest, Jesus did not come to give us a “gospel of sin management,” He came to give us Himself.
The discussion reminds me of how Jesus prayed in the garden while the disciples slept, and He told them to pray so that they would not fall into temptation. It makes me wonder how they would have responded to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion differently if they had prayed along with Him.
Beliefs of the Heart
Now your comment makes me wonder how much we all need to learn to pray along with Him!
Sam, your quote from Flannery reminded me of another that I think is from either George McDonald or Ozwald Chambers….maybe you can recall which. But the paraphrase is ‘woe to the man that succeeds without God, and even more woe to he that suceeds with God.” For me, the idea being that success breeds pride and and easily takes away from our needed dependence on God (your “…smugness when we succeed”, eh?). Interesting to me after and extended period of unemployment during which I increased in my dependence on God, to recently having found a job and now find concern that I don’t lose that dependence….for the blessing has been a deeper relationship and deeper desire to pursue and hear from Him. I dont want to go back!
Beliefs of the Heart
I don’t know the quote you quoted. But I like it.
My dad once preached a sermon that I has stuck with me. The title was, “The Two Trials of God.” Those two were failure (or struggles) and Success. Of the two, success is harder. When we succeed we invariably (Okay, at least I invariably) quit depending on God and begin trusting myself.
Well after another stupid stunt this weekend I told God today to please help me. The core of my problems I’m realizing is I’m not relying on God and letting him lead me. You post is spot on! Thank you Sam.
Thank you Sam. Just what I needed to hear and at just the right time.
Back to the original article: My reading of Romans 6 and 7 is that the civil war going on inside of us isn’t the old man (the old self) versus the new man (the new self). The old self has been twice-removed: both already crucified with Christ (Rom.6:6) and already buried with Christ (Rom.6:4).
So that old Bob Hazen – that old sucky, needy, petty, run-to-addictions Bob Hazen – that old me has already been both crucified and buried. That old me not only isn’t even a factor anymore – that old me doesn’t even exist anymore.
So then why do I still sin? Why do I from time to time still pout and get angry and resentful like that guy in the original article?
Paul explains this in Romans 7 – it’s because of my trained habits, my self-reliant attitude, my lifelong “thanks-God-but-I’ll-do-it-myself” self-training, which Paul calls “the flesh.” By the flesh here he doesn’t mean just the physical body, although the Greek word (sarx) can mean that. By flesh, Paul means that old man’s ways – that self-reliant, God-rejecting habituated attitude and practice of it’s-all-up-to-me – and some things I just can’t handle so I’ll respond with anger, resentment, pouting, defiance, etc.
So the civil war going on inside me is not the old man vs the new man – the civil war going on inside me is the new man vs the flesh – the new born-again Bob Hazen with a good heart vs Bob Hazen’s flesh – the new me vs my old man’s ways.
The New Testament refers to the old man having been crucified (and in the Greek it’s even more emphatic that it’s already been crucified), but it never refers to the flesh having been crucified. I am to crucify my flesh – I am to say No! to my flesh – I am to take up that cross daily, yes. And I am to put on the new man, the new Bob Hazen, the Bob Hazen who already belongs, the new me who’s already accepted, the new man who is beloved, the new self who is utterly and finally and forever validated by the love of God in Christ.
SO…. back to the article – I can really relate to this guy who stormed off in anger after getting some candid feedback. This doesn’t always happen for me, but it did very vividly a few months back, when my wife and younger (24yo) son gave me some candid feedback on certain character deficiencies I have, I found myself realizing and thinking even as they were speaking to me [and these thoughts all flew through me in the blink of an eye], “Yes, that’s all true – that’s all true of my flesh. But that’s not the real me. Can the real me, the born-again me, the seated-at-the-right-hand-of-my-Father me, the me who is beloved – can I take hearing these candid remarks about my flesh?”
I was able to think, “Can I acknowledge that yes, I do live from my flesh at times? Can I see the hope that comes from all these character deficiencies not being the real me but being my flesh, my old man’s ways? Can I acknowledge that I have chosen – like at these times that they’re describing to me – to live from my flesh and not from the real me, the born-again me? Can I acknowledge what Paul says, that ‘There is no good in me, that is, in my flesh’? Can the real me choose to repent of living that way, of living from my flesh, of living from my old man’s ways?”
And the answer to all those questions is, Yes. Yes, the new me, the real me – raised with Christ, seated with my Father, alive to God – that new me can take this candid feedback, acknowledge it as true and real *about*my*flesh – but not true about the real me. The part of me that gets defensive, that wants to rationalize, that wants to go to resentment and attack and anger – that’s not the real me, that’s not the real Bob Hazen, that’s not who I really am. I can (and for this incident actually did) say no to all of those potential fleshly reactions.
I did apologize to them for my actions. I did remind myself that the real me can say no to my fleshly ways and thereby become a better husband, a better father, a better man. I didn’t go with my “normal” fleshly reactions of pouting and anger and resentment.
Do you see the freedom that’s there? The freedom of “That’s not the real me”? Yes, I own my behavior, I own my responsibilities, I apologize to those affected for what I did, even as I realize that everything these character deficiencies are describing is not the real me. Why WOULDN’T I want to get rid of those fleshly, hurtful-to-others ways? The real me doesn’t want to aggravate my wife or alienate my son – and the good news is that it WASN’T even the real me who did those things! This is freedom – that it’s not the real me that does those things. This is hope – and quite the opposite of the hopelessness that always used to come for me when I thought that all those character deficiencies WERE the real me.
I still have lots of work to do on this – there are innumerable ways in which I still have to say no to my flesh, every day. I don’t always do this consistently. Even today, I am still wrestling with some emotions inside of me from yesterday that I’m pretty sure were coming from my flesh and not from the real me. The emotions feel just as real, yes – but those emotions of resentment and petty anger – those aren’t the real me, those aren’t the real born-again, seated-with-Jesus Bob Hazen. The real Bob Hazen can process all this (I think that’s part of what writing this entry is) and say no to my “normal” fleshly reactions of pouting and resentment and say yes to my spirit, say yes that the real me can, out of love, deal with this incident from yesterday.
Enough for now!