Four days into 2016 and already my resolve is being tested.
Maybe that’s true for you as well, and as unsettling as it is to encounter our own lack of self-discipline or perseverance, it is certainly a helpful perspective to bring to the study of Hebrews 2:14-18.
When Jesus took on the constraints of a body, He also opened Himself to the endless downward pull of temptation – more sinister than gravity, but just as much a characteristic of life on planet Earth. The writer of Hebrews painted it in realistic colors, too: “He . . . suffered when He was being tempted,” (NIV).
We also feel the ache of it, the hopeless gnaw of repeat offenses, the falling short.
For me right now it’s a matter of mindfulness. This year I want to be less frenzied and more present to the people I love, less conscious of the clock and more sensitive to the needs of others, and I see in my own sin-tendencies a small shadow of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness at the outset of His ministry. Knowing full well what His Father had called Him to, Jesus resisted Satan’s enticement toward more drama, more visible power, and more public appreciation for His divine prerogatives. His God-given work would include hours of sitting in silent prayer, days of washing feet and touching lepers, years of trudging over the back roads to find people who would rather be lost. He did not cave in to the greed of doing “more.”
Riding the bucking bronco of temptation to its mastery, Jesus felt its full force. Most of us will never know the full degree of temptation simply because . . . we cave. John Owen, a 17th-century English Puritan, wrote an entire book about “killing sin” based on Romans 8:13b:
“If by the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
In chapter six of The Mortification of Sin, Owen calls believers to a battle against temptation with practical advice for warring against the evil in our hearts:
I. Pulling the plug on bad habits
This Puritan must have had a sense of humor: “And the reason why a natural man is not always perpetually in the pursuit of some one lust, night and day, is because he hath many to serve . .thence he is carried on with great variety.”
When it comes to sin, we are all on the cafeteria plan. Where to begin? So many choices.
John Owen also had a heart, because it seems that we have his sympathy here. Not only does he admit the “violence and impetuousness” of the temptations we fight, but also shows that he is aware of differences in temperament among individuals. What looks like diligence in a workaholic is alike, in degree, to what looks like a peaceful heart in a lazy man. But these, along with the more “scandalous sins” must be put to death at the root, which is not a pretty thing to look at, at least from the inside. John Owen borrows Paul’s image: crucifixion, (Galatians 5:24) and describes the death of a sin with violence involving struggle, beating down, and fastening it to a cross.
By contrast, we give up too soon. With behavioral scientists finding that it takes an average of 66 days to break any habit (and the range is anywhere from 18 to 254 days), very often we “leave the principle and root untouched, perhaps unsearched out, [and] make little or no progress in this work of mortification.”
II. Declaring war
According to John Piper, “Just Do It” is an atheistic stance, but, verbally, not far from this truth: “Do It in the Spirit!” Where boot straps leave off and Spirit picks up is a matter of the heart. Owen urges the believer to take his stand on the cross and to take the mercy of God for fighting sin. It is by the Spirit that we recognize sin as the enemy of our soul; it is by the Spirit that we know our enemy well; it is by the Spirit that we will “load [the enemy, sin] daily with destruction . . . new wounds, new blows every day.”
III. Experiencing victory
How does one recognize success?
“[When sin’s] motions and actions are fewer and weaker than formerly, so that they are not able to hinder his duty nor interrupt his peace.”
This convinces me that the “normal Christian life” is found in a moment-by-moment clinging to the promises of Scripture and a praying-like-breathing dependence on the Spirit who “implants . . .principle[s] of grace that stand in direct opposition to [sin] and are destructive of it.” Indeed, “promptness, alacrity, [and] vigor” are the characteristics of the “new man” in “contending with, cheerful fighting against” sin.
As children of the age of self-help books, 12-Step programs, and “Everything-Under-the-Sun for Dummies,” we come to the Word of God looking for a method, a sin-killing strategy that we can execute and then move on. What we find in John Owen’s Mortification of Sin — and in the Word of God itself — is not mechanical, but relationship-oriented. Fight temptation, hate your sin, take the Spirit’s power, and do it as if your life depends upon it. It does.
Therefore, while we have holidays that celebrate what Jesus did for us through the manger, the cross, and the empty tomb, we must not overlook the benefit we receive from His having lived a perfect life in the midst of family conflict, criticism from every side, physical weakness caused by hunger and thirst, and the day-to-day annoyance of life with twelve power-grabbing, hot-headed followers. Having entered into our situation “in every way, in order that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest,” we know that when we cry out to Him for help in overcoming sin, we are coming to a sympathetic – and empathetic – conqueror who “knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust,” but who is also able to empower us in the battle against temptation.
Pull your chair a little closer to the table and join us for a study in The Epistle to the Hebrews, a letter to a congregation of struggling Jewish Christians written by an unknown author sometime before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. My class and I will be landing on a few verses in each chapter with the goal of getting an overview of this fascinating and complex book. These mid-week reflections and observations are intended to initiate a deeper pondering of the week’s assignment in preparation for our discussion the following Sunday. We’re only two weeks into the study, so it’s not too late to catch up by reading Hebrews 1 and 2, and, if you’re interested, last week’s blog post.
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