Image Management and the Gospel

Over-eating is an embarrassing sin.  There may be a few others that rival the obvious and detectable nature of its presence in a person’s life, but I don’t think so.  Those extra calories are there for all the world to see, filling up waist bands, bulging behind buttons, and squishing out over a starched collar.  I hate it.

But — do I hate this “galling, disquieting, and perplexing” sin because I see that food has become an idol, a replacement for God?  Do I hate that my first response to any negative emotion is the comfort of food rather than the sufficiency of the Comforter?  Am I at all concerned with more “burdensome” sins of slothfulness, lack of self-discipline and immature conflict management that might contribute to the more obvious sin of over-eating?   Chapter 8 of John Owen’s Mortification of Sin forces me to ask probing questions about whether I hate “sin as sin,” meaning anything that “grieves and disquiets the Spirit of God,” or if I am chiefly interested in image management, expressed in the all-important question, “Does this make me look bad . . . or weak . . . or fat?”

Granted, being overweight has become one of the “safe sins” in the Christian world.  Elisabeth Elliot used to quip, “No one has the right to talk about weight.  If you don’t struggle with it, you don’t know what you’re talking about; if you do struggle with it, you haven’t got any room to talk.”  (I guess that puts her in the former category and me in the latter.)  At any rate, I can’t help but think of Screwtape’s instruction to his tempter-in-training, recommending the gentle slope into sin.  While God would desire to use dismay and alarm over sin “to awaken thee to the consideration of thy ways, that thou mayst make a thorough work and change in thy course of walking with him,”  Screwtape would prefer that we choose to live with it, peaceably co-existing with root causes, while fruitlessly battling symptoms with every weight-loss fad on the market.

Owen’s premise is that “a sense of the love of Christ in the cross” is our only hope in arriving at true mortification of any sin — in contrast to mere image management which is only concerned with the sin’s effect on my own peace of mind, reputation, or comfort-level within my own skin.  He reiterates the primary principle in compelling language:

“Without sincerity and diligence in a universality of obedience, there is no mortification of any one perplexing lust to be obtained.

“It is not only an intense opposition to this or that peculiar lust, but a universal humble frame and temper of heart, with watchfulness over every evil and for the performance of every duty, that is accepted.

“He then that would really, thoroughly, and acceptably mortify any disquieting lust, let him take care to be equally diligent in all points of obedience.”

While it is true that we need only to look within our own hearts to observe the life cycle of a besetting sin, Owen graciously draws a road map, tracing the “eruption” of sin from the heart to the mind, and into sinful behavior, but the Holy Spirit will not cease to persevere in His relentless pursuit of our wayward hearts:

“Here is one, if he could be rid of the lust, I should never hear of him more; let him wrestle with this or he is lost.”

Here’s a question to wrestle with:

If you could over-eat [or fill in the blank here with your own idol of choice], and never have to experience negative consequences here on Earth in this body, would you still seek to mortify that sin?  I intend to think carefully about this one, because the answer reveals whether I am more concerned with “the trouble of sin” or with “the filth and guilt of it.”

Resurrecting this post today for the #livefree Thursday community!

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Proverbs for Wise Living

Get Wise by Bob Merritt:  A Book Review

Thank you, Bob Merritt, for doing what I have always wanted to do:  sifting  through the random assortment of life-giving wisdom in the book of Proverbs and categorizing the verses according to theme.

As a pastor, Merritt knows that the book of  Proverbs contains the wise words that our hearts need.  In fact, he equates having a wise heart with spiritual sensitivity, and then highlights eleven other extremely practical aspects of living where the application of godly wisdom to daily decisions can make the difference between success and failure, triumph and defeat, life and death.  These categories fall into four major groupings:   Personal Wisdom, Relational Wisdom, Family Wisdom, and Successful Wisdom.

Although the book reads just as Baker’s category (Christian Living) implies, it could also serve well as a teacher’s guide since it includes discussion questions and a focus verse for each chapter.  Merritt’s personal experiences have just the right blend of grimace and grin to hit home — his transparency is heartwarming.  I actually could not help but read parts of the book out loud to my husband and kids, and they had the same reaction.  The next time I teach from the book of Proverbs, this book will be nearby as I study.

I received this book free from Baker Publishing Group. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

Traffic-Proof Your Children

Stolen by Katariina Rosenblatt, PhD and Cecil Murphey:  A Book Review

When my children were small, the traffic I worried about had four wheels and was engine-powered.  We could avoid the danger by staying away from the road.  Stolen will open the reader’s eyes to another danger which shares the same name, but with grave differences:   it comes looking for its prey,  and it is powered by money.  As a sex trafficking survivor, the author’s story is bleak and frightening, but not without hope.

The message for parents and teachers is this:   every child is a potential target for recruitment.  Risk is heightened in situations where there is: (1)an insecure home life; (2) instability of the parents’ marriage; (3) distractions which prevent appropriate supervision of a child’s schedule and companions; (4) anything that gets in the way of the child’s development of a healthy, God-oriented self-esteem and appreciation for his or her own uniqueness.  These are risk factors, but no child is safe from recruitment by traffickers, and this is true of boys as well as girls.  Some chronological looping in the telling of the tale does not detract from the crucial message the author shares.

Rosenblatt and Murphey do an incredible job of tracing the sadness of a lifestyle that is like quicksand.  The truth is that abuse numbs, but serial abuse deadens.  Over time, victims,  because of the drugs used to control them and the steep banks of their pit, seem to lose all traction.  After multiple incidents of being bought and sold, taken advantage of in every way, Katariina found freedom in Christ, but then married an abuser and spent over twenty years in his power.  Although plagued by poor advice from counselors (who incorrectly used the writings of the Apostle Paul as clubs for beating women over the head), her healing came through trust in God’s view of her as a valuable person.  Among the results of her educational and professional accomplishments are:  legislation in Florida that provides safe housing for children coming out of prostitution, a nonprofit organization dedicated to freeing victims of human trafficking, and a heightened awareness of the need for resources and personnel directed toward fighting this modern day form of slavery.

Stolen is not a pleasant read, but it is an important book for:

Parents — Read and ask yourself, “Am I attempting to traffic-proof my children?”

Church leaders —  Read and evaluate, “What is my church doing to minister to individuals who are trapped in this lifestyle?”

Community leaders —  Read and investigate, “Are there locations in my community where traffickers are recruiting or operating?”

I received this book free from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

What Do They Really Need?

Fourteen years as a missionary in Cambodia changes your view of God.  It changes the way you stand in front of a church and give a report.  “This is what God did” somehow gets sorted out from “This is what I thought He was doing at the time” and “This is what I expected.”  In fourteen years, a diligent and creative missionary can change the landscape around a tribal village.  That’s what happened with Ralph and Kim:  bridges span river beds, water towers provide safe water, medical and educational facilities stand cheek by jowl with planed boards and thatch.

So many needs to tend to:  the cobra bite, the malaria patient, the feverish baby.  But then it becomes clear that the medicine sent to the home of the sick child got washed down the throat of an alcoholic dad — along with most of any good things that come through the door.  Then you notice that the baby hanging in the hammock is not actually being watched by anyone — unless you count the twelve-inch centipede that is inching its way toward him.

Can even the most heroic, godly, and motivated missionary on the planet deal with this kind of need?

According to John Owen in Chapter 7 of The Mortification of Sin, the answer is a resounding “no!”  That’s not to say that Owen would abandon the mission field.  His word to the missionaries of the world would be to work on conversion before focusing on  behavior.  There’s no mistaking his meaning, because he says it in various ways:

“Unless a man be a believer, . . . he an never mortify any one sin.

Mortification is the work of believers.

There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.

Sin is to be mortified, but something is to be done in the first place to enable us thereunto.

Mortification is not the present business of unregenerate man.  Conversion is their work.”

He would likely view the bridges and the water towers as a means to an end, that end being faith, for it is by faith that the believer receives the power of the Spirit, by whom sin is put to death.  In fact, those Cambodians may “easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit.”

And so let the work of conversion begin.  While Kim sewed up ragged wounds and ran I.V. tubing from poles to patients on mats and in hammocks, Ralph began the work of translation.  Together with their children, they built relationships with people in the village.  By 2017, the entire New Testament should be available in the tribal language of this hidden jungle people group.   They will be able to read for themselves the good news (that is “even gooder than we ever dared hope” according to Frederich Buechner) that the Spirit of Christ may dwell in them, the Refiner’s fire who alone is the remedy for sin.

But beware, missionaries, and beware, Christians in all lands, because “to break men of particular sins, and not to break their hearts, is to deprive ourselves of the advantages of dealing with them.”  John Owen uses strong metaphors to describe this tendency to attack sin apart from the work of the Spirit.  He compares it to “beating the enemy into an impregnable castle, not to be prevailed against.”  “Peccant!”  (diseased or offending) is this call to mortification apart from believing.  This vain method of contention deludes them, hardens them, and destroys them, resulting in the “most vile and desperate sinners.”

This truth lands very close to home, because my most important mission field over the past twenty years has been my four sons.  Has my missional motherhood (Gloria Furman’s term) been a gospel of “philosophical self-regulation” or of purifying the soul through the Spirit in obedience to the truth? (I Peter 1:22)  I want nothing more than to see my sons as “living men,” engaged in a living faith, for “where men are dead, sin is alive and will live.”

Hence, the call of Christ in evangelism, teaching or missionary work is not the stamping out of sin, but the igniting of Spirit-fire.  When we get the transformation in the proper order (conversion before mortification), we “call a man away from mending a hole in the wall of his house to quench a fire that is consuming the whole building.”

Rubik’s Cube of Interlocking Crimes

A Promise to Protect by Patricia Bradley:  A Book Review

Author Patricia Bradley has created a page-turning Rubik’s Cube of interlocking crimes.  The book starts out with a bang — literally, as Dr. Leigh Somerall’s beloved brother is murdered at gunpoint.  Was his murderer connected somehow to the shots fired at Leigh?  Or was the target really Sheriff Ben Logan?

The town of Logan Point looks on as Ben and Lee sort through the rubble of two fires, the complexities of their past relationship (Can it be rekindled?), and the social complications of small town living where everybody knows your name — and your business.

Best of all Patricia Bradley drives a stake into the eternal truth of God’s sovereignty.  Overcome by mystery, loss,  and life-threatening events, Sheriff Ben and Dr. Leigh affirm that God does not make mistakes, and that He is able to handle the aftermath of poor choices.  The real mystery in A Promise to Protect is the miracle of forgiveness.

I received this book free from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

An Open Letter to My First Mentor

Living Our Days

Happy Birthday, Joanne!

Do people in heaven celebrate birthdays?  Probably not, but more important for you (and tragic for me) is that this is the tenth time you have celebrated a birthday in heaven.  Another thing I’m not absolutely clear on is whether you are aware of this birthday greeting; whether you are privy to some of the milestones, triumphs, and failures I’ve missed sharing with you over the past ten years.  I’ve gotten used to thinking of you as a member of my “cloud of witnesses.”  I hope I’m right.

One of the reasons that I’m ok about admitting my uncertainties (that I have not yet developed a theology-of-everything) is that from the time I was sixteen years old, I witnessed your questioning spirit, your curious mind, and your whole-hearted  “pressing on to know the Lord.”   I wanted to know Him, too, so I trailed along behind you.   In fact, I wish I could ask you now if you…

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The Non-methodical Method

I’m with Paul.

When he vents in Romans 7 about his “captivity to the law of sin,” I hear a howl of frustration.  For Paul, for me, sin is an inside job, and we are all betrayed by our own mortal flesh before we open our eyes in the morning.

But then, being Paul, he rips the rhetorical right out of his question, (“Who will deliver me from this body of death?”), by providing an answer — THE answer:

I thank God —  through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Wouldn’t it be helpful to get a glimpse of the Apostle Paul’s personal journal?  What did the struggle look like between “the law of God” and “the law of sin” in a mind and a heart that was utterly devoted to God?

We want a method.  “What’s working for you?”

John Owen, in Chapter Six of The Mortification of Sin, describes the process of killing sin as a pilgrim on the path — not exactly describing it from the rear view mirror, but definitely in process:  “Here’s how you’ll know that you are warring against evil in your heart.”

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 admitting 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?  “[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.