That grace may abound

Warning; I get personal here. This was hard to write, and if you’re reading this, I obviously chose to publish it. Be assured – publication was not a forgone conclusion when I began to write, and at a certain point (the point at which I’m writing this disclaimer), I was not entirely sure that I wasn’t just going to delete the entire thing. Read with caution.

There are two ways of approaching a problem in this world – God’s way, and the world’s way. To the seasoned believer this will be obvious, but non-trivially true. To the maturing believer, this will be somewhere between obvious and trite, with a side of fatuous thrown in, depending on their maturity level. To the nonbeliever, this will sound like religious mumbo-jumbo. (Bad news for my non-Christian readers – the level of mumbo-jumbo in this blog is only going to be increasing.)

There’s a fourth category, however, that I did not address above. To the carnal believer, this statement will be obvious, but trivially true.

Now, I use the term “trivial” here in a specific sense – in mathematics, trivial solutions are those solutions which have very simple structures. Without getting too far into the detail of why, trivial solutions to a problem are generally not useful in understanding the problem – while it is true that the definition of a circle (with apologies to any real mathematicians who might be reading; the set of all points [P] that are in the same plane and a specific distance from a defined point) is satisfied by a single point (which means that r is 0), it doesn’t tell us anything about what a circle is.

Confused yet? No? Okay, cool – we’re about to add more to the mix. Glad you can handle it.

I’m not going to get into the reasons why, or the various issues surrounding it, but through a series of choices that seemed like a good idea at the time, willful blindness, and a heaping dose of self-deception, I’ve found myself at 31 with a gigantic collection of issues in my head revolving around sex and relationships, despite having a truly minuscule quantity of either in my past. It’s interesting to look at them through a lens of trust (shush. You know who you are), because where once (very recently) I would have said that they were essentially a giant undifferentiated mass of betrayals, deceptions on all sides, self-destructive patterns, etc., I can now point to specific breakpoints, specific things that I did wrong. 

Every time I mention any of these things, I am given two forms of advice. From the one side; “Go out, have fun, meet people, get laid, demystify the whole thing, let yourself heal!” From the other; “Wait. Be patient. Guard your heart.” From the one side, a pattern that I know will lead to some sort of healing – given the nature of these issues, a lot of them would quickly be resolved by a bit of demystification. From the other, a pattern that reeks of Josh Harris and Rebecca St. James, and mostly makes me want to break things.

The fascinating part about the first piece of advice is that I have gotten it from believers MORE than the second piece of advice, especially as I have gotten older. There are times it’s tempting – times when I find myself considering the nature of grace, and what healing (even on worldly terms) might mean in my life…

All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.

1 Corinthians 10:23-24 (NASB) (biblegateway.com)

Awesome! All things are lawful! Where’s that phone number?

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?

Romans 6:1-2 (NASB) (biblegateway.com)

I use the NASB translation above, but in the title of my post I use the wording from the English Standard Version. When Paul asks if we should continue in sin that grace may abound, he is not just referring to the twisted logic that if a little grace is good, a lot of grace must be better. He’s referring to the thing that is at the core of many of the struggles believers (me most DEFINITELY included) seem to be having these days.

The evangelical church does an outstanding job preparing her children to live in a world populated only by the evangelical church. The blindfolds and fetters that are placed around many youth in the church often serve to do little more than increase their vulnerability to the blandishments of the world. The church says “thou shalt not”, and assumes that people will simply comply, regardless of the cost to themselves.

Obviously, most people don’t comply. I haven’t, certainly not in any sort of detail. Others have complied less. In a world where one is being told that it is good and right to reach out and pluck a fruit, and one can see the ease and seeming harmlessness of doing so, it is a REALLY dumb idea to simply tell people “no”, without ever telling them the why, or offering an alternative. And we wonder why our buildings are emptying.

I won’t rehash the splendid logic of Romans here, but the only conclusion that I can draw is that choosing expediency is the exact opposite of the choice to which we are intended to come.

If we are indeed to be salt and light to the earth, how then can we so enthusiastically adopt it’s patterns? Why do we behave as though the Church is nothing but a social club for Sunday mornings? Martyn Lloyd-Jones said “When the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is forced to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.”

If I choose the route of healing that is the one recommended by the world, simply because it IS the one recommended by the world, I have decided that the promises of Scripture are nothing but wind. If I place my trust in my own understanding and in the solutions whose results I can see and understand, what meaning can God’s way have to me?

I don’t know if, when, or how God intends my personal issues to be healed, but I do know this – I shall not reject His promises in favor of expediency. I don’t have to understand it. I don’t have to see the end of the road. I don’t even particularly have to like it. I just have to do it.

Shall I seek healing in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid!

Advertisements

A Sinner in the Arms of a Merciful God

A couple of weeks ago, I said that I was confident that for the first time in my life, I could lose any possession, and react in trust. Yesterday, the Lord saw fit to put that to the test.

For reasons that I am not prepared to go into (and may never be, in public), I have found myself with a six month suspension of driving privileges. This one is different from the last, though – less than 24 hours after I was railing at God, begging Him to understand WHY He took away the greatest worldly joy in my life, I find myself in a state of calm trust.

and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons,

My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
Nor faint when you are reproved by Him;
For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines,
And He scourges every son whom He receives.”

It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons

Hebrews 12:4-8, NASB (biblegateway.com)

My mother reminded me of this passage when I was complaining about my suspension yesterday. I really don’t have anything to add, save that it is truly humbling to be reminded that I MUST see myself as a child on a daily basis. Without the trust of a child towards his father, how could I embrace the discipline that is given me?

Okay, this must simply sound like I’ve lost my mind. That’s okay, incidentally – if you’re not prepared to accept that I can be genuinely grateful for this, and GENUINELY trust (and I really can’t tell you how cool that part is) that this is what I need, this next part is going to sound REALLY nuts.

A few weeks ago, I was given a specific instruction about my personal behavior. There was a pattern I had adopted, and I was led, quite forcefully, to stop it. Naturally, being the obedient and trusting son I am, I complied without question, qualm, or hesitation.

If you believe that last sentence, I have some farmland in Arizona to sell you. Prime corn country.

In typical fashion, I dug in my heels, declared “NO! This isn’t that big a deal!” and carried on as before. Rather than abandon me to my rebellion, God took me by the scruff of the neck, rubbed my nose in the mess on the carpet, and informed me in no uncertain terms that He meant what He had said. The fascinating part (to me, at least) is how very quickly this has turned from discipline to instruction. I exhort you, brethren – do not leave the instruction of God aside. Not only is it easier to obey, prompt obedience and acceptance of discipline puts you in the right place to learn some lessons the easy way.

I was reading Charles Spurgeon this morning (always a worthwhile endeavor), and I was humbled by how I have been spared the more destructive kinds of excess (which is not to say I’ve been a paragon of moderation – far from it, in fact), despite my enthusiastic courting of… well, look at a list of “don’ts” in the Bible. Pick any list, it doesn’t matter which one. I’ll wait. If you’re having trouble coming up with a list, let’s go all the way back to the basics.

 Then God spoke all these words, saying,

 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before Me.

 “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.  You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God,visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,  but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

 “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not[d]leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.

 “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work,  but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.

 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.

 “You shall not murder.

 “You shall not commit adultery.

“You shall not steal.

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Exodus 20:1-17, NASB (biblegateway.com)

I have deliberately and in full knowledge and disobedience (that is to say – after my conversion) sought to do at least half of these things, and despite the great specificity of some such lists (after all, they’re exemplary and not exhaustive) I am reasonably sure that that statement is true of ALL of them. God has seen fit to throw barriers in my path at every turn, preventing my rebellion despite my petulant demands that I be permitted to do what I want. For that, I am finally grateful.  Maybe I’ll manage to grow spiritually without metaphorically feeling like I spent six months of my life in a washing machine full of rocks, this time.

The title of this piece is the only relation it has to Edwards’ sermon, incidentally – I’ve not even read the text of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (an oversight I intend to correct… when my reading list opens up). I just couldn’t resist the parallel title structure.

Praise the Lord for His boundless mercy.

One of “Those Guys”

I’ve become one of those guys. You know the ones – the guys who can only talk about their cars, or their guns, or whatever their personal flavor of obsession is. One of those guys whose identity, strangely, seems to revolve around a Thing. And I think I’m cool with it.

I bought a Jeep Wrangler recently. Ain’t she purty?

Isabel topless. She's a Jeep, perv.

I swear, I had a good reason to take a random picture of my jeep. I was giving a friend a hard time about the weather – he’s from the frozen north, where apparently there are still mammoths roaming around from January.

Yeah, she’s a bit beat up, and yeah, there are some mechanical issues, but what you have to understand is that she’s the first vehicle I’ve ever really taken any pride in. Until fairly recently in my life, I was really, really bad at being in the world. I was thoroughly of the world, however. Astute readers will note that there is a problem with that particular combination. She taught me how to see it.

And now we divert for some vague theoretical bloviating! You knew what you were getting into when you clicked the link.

As I’ve found myself growing more attached to Isabel (by now you may have guessed that Isabel is, in fact, a jeep), I’ve grown a bit worried, from time to time. Historically, possessions have had very little hold on me in one sense, while mattering very, very deeply in another. At one point in my life, it would be quite accurate to say that nothing, individually and as such, mattered in particular to me. It could most accurately be described, I think, as a sort of bland apathy towards any specific item. On the other hand, I had a certain dragonish possessiveness about me – these things are MINE. All of the impotent greed of Smaug or Eustace, without the core of real desire that they had. Mine was like an emulation of desire, being masked by an emulation of a lack of desire. I was an automaton pretending to be a dragon pretending (very badly) to be an ascetic.

Then I bought a vehicle that was, admittedly, an impulse buy. In high school, a good friend of mine had a jeep, and I had always wanted one. By the time I got home from picking her up (a story in itself), I was in love.

As the first flickers of real attachment started to show up in my mind when I thought about my vehicle (this was about halfway back home from purchasing her), they were immediately followed by a stab of what can only be described as terror. You have to understand – one of my most insidiously deceptive habits of thought is to model God like I do anyone else. That is not to say that I attempt to predict His actions or anything so silly, but I try to come to some sort of understanding of Him which allows me to actually think about His relationship to reality, not just to some fuzzy sort of feelgood universe inside my head. So even though I consciously try not to be so presumptuous as to say to myself “God would want….” in any given case, I occasionally find myself doing so. Here’s the hazard of that – you begin to apply human patterns to it. In my case, those human patterns are the patterns of logic, specifically of formal logic. So I had and have a tendency to think of God in extremes. My first thought, the one that caused that stab of terror, was “If I get attached to this, God will take it away.” I wouldn’t have said that I thought of God as malicious, but it’s possible that capricious would be pretty close.

I don’t know what it is about that drive, but that moment of terror (I think it’s that moment, at least – there are a few other candidates) began a process that I have generally described as a phase change.

When he hits the bottles, he is creating nucleation sites – places for the water to start to change into ice. If the water is cold enough (and it’s more complicated than just “cool to zero C”, but that’s pretty close,) a single nucleation site is all it takes to start a chain reaction that engulfs the bottle in moments. That is a phase change.

Whatever moment began it, all I know is that before it, I saw God as being a capricious master, who knows best but only by definition. In daily life, your actual happiness is more or less irrelevant. After the phase change, I learned how to trust.

After that moment where I looked at my life and at God and could only come to a place of fear, I began to consider life, and how it has all worked together. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everything has come out for the best, but that’s because I don’t know what the best of all possible worlds is. Honestly, I’ve only just begun to learn to trust God – an epiphany and a few months of thought do not a saint make, but for the first time in my life, I know what it actually MEANS to trust God. That trust is immensely liberating. Now, when I consider possessions (even Isabel, though I have no hesitation in saying that she is precious to me,) I know I can let go. There would probably be… distress associated with letting go of a few things, but I know I could, and I could do so in full faith that my needs will be provided for. This is not, of course, the moment of testing, but I’m more sure than ever that I could withstand the test.

And now we’re coming full circle – as I began to understand how to trust God for material things (and yes, it really did take me this long in my life. I’m not very bright sometimes) I began (quite rapidly) to trust Him for immaterial things. I began to understand that I could enjoy the world He has given us, without anchoring myself in it. I began to understand… a lot of stuff that would mostly come off as either mystical or obvious, depending on where you stand. In short, I learned how to tell the difference between “in the world” and “of it”.

I realize that I’ve just spent two posts in a row talking about my feelings. I promise that we’re going to be getting back to subjects that actually affect the real world soon, but bear with me a bit further – I still have a story or two to share about the jeep that changed my life.

So, yeah, I talk about my jeep a lot. Sure, it was God who taught me the lesson, but in His infinite grace, He decided to use a 99 TJ to do the last part. For that I’m grateful – He could have given me this epiphany with an El Camino.

Isabel and the Hypocrite

There is something pompously ghoulish about the public confession of shortcoming. I don’t speak of sin, necessarily, since the confession of sin is vital to the renewal of spirit that goes with forgiveness, nor do I speak of telling someone who deserves to know that you have failed them in some way. I’m talking about the kind of ostentatious public humility that can sometimes be seen in otherwise entirely prideful figures, when they point to themselves and talk about how terrible they are, in ways that often may seem fairly trivial. They may be quite correct in their confessions, and even motivated quite properly, in that they confess as a step towards repentance. Nonetheless, I always find that it has a tinge of macabre voyeurism about it.

I keep having to admit all sorts of ironic things about myself these days, for I have come to a place in my life where the only appropriate next action is a public confession of shortcoming.

I am a hypocrite. I am a hypocrite in a way that I never understood could exist until I acknowledged it about myself. Here’s why: some months ago I began to write a column for an opinion site. Being the humble man of modest pretension that I am, I decided that my first endeavor would be a working definition of virtue, which I termed arete, drawing on an Aristotelian understanding of virtue. I wrote several articles (I have not yet decided if I will repost them here, although I might), which were well received within the relatively limited circulation I had.

Then I came to the time of writing the article that would tie the entire series together. As I shared my thoughts on virtue, I was developing towards a specific point. I had discussed the interplay of tolerance and courtesy, judgment, and duty as civilizational virtues, and I had given fairly broad instances of what they might look like, but I knew where I was going with this entire series. First, however, the confession.

I sat in front of my keyboard, and I couldn’t make a single word come. I didn’t know how to start, I didn’t know what to say, so I spewed drivel for an hour or so. After three attempts over five days, I accepted that I simply needed to back away from the topic for a bit and think it through. I started to think about a filler article. I emailed the editor and told him that I was having trouble finishing my piece, and that I would send it to him in the next couple of days. Those days passed, and then became a week, which became two, which has since become… well, at this point, it’s safe to say that that bridge is fairly thoroughly burned. And possibly bombed.

The irony and the hypocrisy of the whole thing is that that final article was supposed to be on the core of virtue, which I referred to (in a phrase that I’m quite sure I stole, but I can’t recall from where) as a discipline of choice. It’s not the external discipline of schoolmasters, nor yet of the monastery or the military. It’s the internal discipline that is self-reinforcing, self-defining, and self-motivating. It’s the discipline to return to doing one’s work, despite doing it poorly or having some other thing that one wants to do more, in the sure and certain knowledge that good work will bring about good results. It’s the discipline, in fact, to choose to be disciplined, and it’s the discipline of understanding that virtue is chosen, not born, not inculcated, but it must be chosen in a deliberate, eyes-open fashion.

So, in attempting to write about this idea, I found myself incapable of demonstrating it in myself, as I ignored emails first from embarrassment, then what can only be termed humiliation, as I considered the idea of submitting that article first a week late, and then two, and then four…

I return to writing for public consumption now, chastened and taught a significant lesson in personal humility. I was considering creating a new blog (and still might), but I think that this, at least, deserves to be here, and for now I shall continue to write on this blog.