The Secret to the Christian Life

Do you still get angry? Do you fight with others in actuality or even in your own mind? Do you know why? I do. And I think you can stop. In fact, I think your whole life can change if you can understand two verses of the Bible. 

James 4:1-2 “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.”

The secret to the Christian life, that is, the answer to the question: How shall we then live, is given in these two verses.

James is writing to Christians in a church. They are fighting with each other pretty intensely over something or other. What is it? It doesn’t matter. They should not be treating each other this way, because they should not be feeling so murderous and angry. 

Why are they feeling murderous and angry? Because they have “passions” at war within them.  

This is “lusts” right? No. It’s the word for “pleasures,” the same word we get our word “hedonism” from. My translation:

“Why do you fight? You want pleasure, and your desire for pleasure is at war with another one of your desires for pleasure, AND, with someone else’s desire for pleasure.

So, desire for pleasure is wrong? Sure, if you don’t want to have any enjoyment of life at all. But is that what you want? Is that what God wants for you? You might be thinking: “No, God wants me to have pleasure in him.”

But how will you do that if you shut down your pleasure mechanism, which is what you’d have to do. You’d have to train yourself to be stoic. If you’re stoic, you won’t take the right kind of delight in God.

So, desire for pleasure must not be wrong, and I guess I can take pleasure in some things.

Ok, logically, that must be true. So it’s ok that we take pleasure in some things. So how is it that our pleasures get at war inside us and with others? 

I think it is because we have not done the hard work of prioritizing our life and values.

Pleasure is something I get when I gain something that I value: God, success, sex, cake, something beautiful, lot’s of things. The lack of pleasure comes from not getting those things when I’d like them, or losing them when I had them. It feels bad. It feels like pain, or depression. It should feel bad. This is not sinful.

So here’s how I do it: I set priorities logically based on what I perceive to be the facts of reality and causality. These are the things that I value, that is, the things that I act to gain or to keep. I make sure these things are the proper things for the way God has called me to live. 

It starts with my ultimate purpose: To enjoy and glorify God. He is my highest value. If I were thrown in a dirty dungeon to starve to death, I’d still have my highest value. You want your highest value to be the hardest thing for anyone to take away.

My penultimate purpose is my life: I believe in the biblical principle stewardship, so I believe life is not about what you have, but what you do with what you have. The most basic thing I have is my life. While I am on earth, I value staying alive and enjoying it if I can without corrupting my other values. Because of this, my next value is…

My health: I can’t do any of the important things of life if I not only don’t stay alive, but don’t have any strength or energy.

My work: I have to produce something in order to provide for me and my family. You could convince me that my family is a higher value than my work, but in the sense that I would tell a young man who wants to find a wife and have a family that he needs to get a job first, I put producing as a higher priority. If I don’t, all the Millers (that’s me and my wife and kids) die. I also put handling finances/investing in this category, and any mundane daily work as well. I put dishes, diapers, home repairs, and lawn work in this category. Work is producing some kind of order. But this would not justify workaholism, because my next value is…

My wife: Marriage has to be attended to. It is such an important part of joyful life and it brings attention and glory to God. I want my marriage to be fulfilling, and encouraging. Romance, connection, and cooperation are the key areas of focus and all equally important.

My Children: The kids come before any other relationships outside the marriage. I won’t put friends, church members, or extended family before my kids. The areas of focus in order of importance are: Their faith, love between us, character training, education. I suppose I might put my home in this category as well, because my home is the place for my family to live.

My church: For me, this is mixed up in my work, since I am a pastor, but I still try to think of my church as my church family separate from thinking of my job as the pastor of that church. Otherwise, worshiping on Sunday with my church family feels more like work and less like gathering with my brothers and sisters in the local expression of the worldwide Body of Christ. One is not restful, the other is.

Service to the community, the poor, and my geographical neighbors: This is not optional for Christians. We make time for it after the other things. If you are tempted to put this before the stuff above, seriously rethink that logically.

Extended family: They technically come before service to the community, but none of mine live close.

Leisure: Reading and playing the piano are my leisure activities. I don’t have time for any others (well, Mario Cart with my kids too), although there are things I would do if I had much more time (fishing, golfing, playing softball, singing in a choir).

Nice things: Having something I like is a bonus, but not a huge priority. I’d like a nicer car (I have 2006 Hyundai), but I value financial freedom more.

That’s the main stuff. To get any of it out of order will cause confusion, a war of pleasures/passions. For instance. I say I value family over reading. If I am trying to read more than I really have time to, and one of my kids is trying to get my attention, I might blow up on him. If I am aware of my value priorities, then I would get the proper pleasure from putting my book down, a lesser value, and talking to my child, a greater value.

Some of these values could seem like they are equal and need to be balanced as though they were. What I mean is, they are all important when it is possible to have them all in the course of your regular life. Work is really important, but things get messed when you cross a line into the other really important things in your life. So you balance intelligently based on your true and righteous values. You pick your values based on principles. If you currently don’t feel like making your health a high priority, then you need to readjust based on logic, not on what you feel like. If you don’t feel like putting your wife ahead of your friends, then you need to readjust your values based on logic, based on truth, based on what you thought was best when you were in your right mind with God with some space for visioning and planning.

Have you taken space for visioning and planning? Do it. Figure out what is important, and make those things important. Your “pleasures” will begin to align with your values in the right order. They won’t be at war with each other, because each of your values will know its proper place. Your emotions, the pleasure and pain mechanisms, will begin to serve you. This is the secret to never having “fights and quarrels.” It is the secret to a peaceful enjoyment of a powerful and productive life abundant. It is a life that glorifies God and brings a smile to the face of your good Father in heaven, who loves you very much.

Principles are Better than Laws Part 11, No Adultery

God gave his people hundreds of laws and commandments in Scripture, and while as Christians we don’t observe as many as the Jews did under Mosaic law, we still have plenty. We’ve been discussing the major ones in this series, and today we’ll continue through the Ten Commandments with Exodus 20:14.

“You shall not commit adultery.” 

This is fairly straightforward: there is someone who is not your husband or your wife… don’t sleep with them. But Jesus already came and made this more complicated in his Sermon on the Mount when he said,

“27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:27-28).

I said that he made it more complicated, but perhaps he actually simplified it. Is it easier to avoid adultery when you allow yourself to lust at your leisure, or is it actually easier if you don’t even toe the line? The very next thing he says is radical: 

“29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

How could your eye cause you to sin? If he is still talking about adultery, and he must be, then surely the action begins with looking. After that, the hands get involved. 

There is one way to look at this. Traditionally, you might say that Jesus is saying, “if you commit adultery, you will go to hell. If you even look lustfully at a woman, you will go to hell. In order to avoid going to hell, you must do whatever you can to avoid these two things.”

I suppose this is all true in some sense, but the reality is more complicated than that. The speaker here will at some point die for those who commit adultery and for those who lust. They will not be able to save themselves. Even if they cut out their eyes and cut off their hands, it won’t make them good enough to stay out of hell. We need Christ’s atoning sacrifice for that. So why all the bother with commands and rules?

Why does Jesus give them so much instruction for living? Why does he take rules that are already kind of hard to follow and make them impossible by saying that even if you imagine sexual sin, you are committing sexual sin, because it is about the heart? Why not just get to the punch line and tell us that he is going to atone for our sin with his own blood?

There are a lot of reasons that have been fleshed out by theologians. An important one is that we need to know the extent of our sin, or at least some extent of our sin, before we can understand that we are desperate for a savior. Why would we turn to Jesus if we think we are good enough already? There is nothing wrong with thinking you are good enough if you actually are, but reading the Bible and getting into the presence of the perfect God will cure that.

But the reason I want to chew on here is that there is a principle at play. Jesus is not simply talking about the place we will go to pay for our own sins when we die if we don’t believe. He is also talking about the place we are already in on this earth if we walk in that kind of darkness, hell on earth. Let’s consider adultery more carefully.

What is the big deal about it? Why include it in the commandments? Why should God care if we commit adultery? We have to start with the question: what is marriage? The Bible tells us that God invented the institution of marriage for the sake of multiplying his image-bearers on the earth and for the sake of showing the eventual relationship between Jesus and his bride, the Church (Eph 5:22-33). This is known by sociologists as the conjugal view of marriage. Along with the conjugal view of marriage came laws about divorce. At one time, you could not seek a divorce except on the grounds of adultery, because the state thought your marriage was in the best interest of society, because society, and particularly the next generation, was dependent on the stability of the family.

While I believe there are problems with civil governments legislating morality, the fact is that marriage was redefined by no-fault divorce laws (and probably birth control). With no-fault divorce laws, the conjugal view was replaced by the revisionist view. This view says that the goal of marriage is happiness. People get married and stay married because it makes them happy. This is shaky ground for a marriage, because it means that if for some reason your marriage is not making you happy, you can quit. If happiness is the main priority, then you should quit if it’s not making you happy.

Again, Jesus said render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s, so I don’t believe in secular state governments legislating morality (there is a difference between fundamental laws like murder and property rights versus laws about non fundamental reality, like decency laws, marriage laws, etc. I’ll talk more about this in the next post about stealing stuff). That said, for a serious Christian, and I would counsel a non-Christian the same way, there should be a higher goal than happiness if you want your marriage to work out in the long run, and if you want your life to be great…which should make you happy.

I’m all for happiness. I just know it doesn’t come by pursuing it directly. What’s more, I fear God, and he said that marriage is to be permanent in this life. What God has joined, let not man separate (Mk 10:9). So what happens when we commit to the conjugal/biblical view of marriage? Why is this a helpful principle for living?

First, I can make a right decision before I am able to understand it. The prohibition against adultery comes with the prohibition against most divorce. If I have locked the door and thrown away the key on my marriage, and if I am committed to no one but my wife, then I don’t have much to consider when facing the choices. If I subscribe to this as a principle, then it orients me as a person who fears God enough to do what he says. I become a man who fears God and lives as though I do.

The impact of that decision on my marriage over time will be positive, because if I don’t have any option to quit, I might as well try to learn how to make it work. If my marriage is hard at anytime, then it will build my character and teach me powerful things about myself, about God, and about life. And what’s more important to me as a Christian is that it shows the world around me the commitment of Jesus to his own bride, the Church. 

Second, if I not only obey this commandment but also go as far as Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, I will constantly direct my mind towards God, truth, and purpose. How else does one live the Sermon on the Mount? Doing this is the key to an amazing and abundant life in God. Other than putting my faith in Jesus, putting my mind on Christ, reality, and his Word is the most powerful thing I can do to live well.

Be committed to the wife or the husband that you have on principle, and of course, out of obedience to God. Go even further and follow Jesus’ standard in the Sermon on the Mount. It is one of the most counter cultural practices that Christians are called to, and one of the most powerful principles for the abundant life.

How Jesus Restores Mankind Part 4, Freedom

The Praise of Man

Giving in Secret

The last two posts looked at the sermon on the mount to consider Jesus’s prescription for the restoration of men and women on the earth. First we looked at his words on anger and murder, then his words on lust and sexual sin, and we noted the extreme freedom that his viewpoint brings to those who have ears to hear and want something better than what passes in the world for happiness and fulfillment. 

Next in the sermon on the mount Jesus discusses divorce. In light of what he says about lust, this one should be easy.  Then oaths: If you are a truly honest person, you don’t need them.  Then retaliation: Don’t retaliate, because you are free from anger. And, love for enemies: Having this will free you from anger and the need for retaliation. After this, in Matthew 6, Jesus moves into subtler territory and gets at the heart of a prevalent issue in the human condition: Doing things, even religious things, to collect the praises of man.  

First, he addresses the subject of giving.  Most people have a hard enough time making themselves give away any money at all. Often, ministries and charities make use of our fallen nature to manipulate us to give, and that usually revolves around other people knowing what you give.  Whether it is in a church where the pastors make it known that they see who gives what, or it is a philanthropist getting their name on a hospital wing, most know that people will tend to give more in public than they will in private.  Why is this?  There can only be one answer to this question: Because we are giving what we are giving to be seen by men, rather than God. Jesus saw the problem with this and called it out in verses 1-4 of Matthew 6.  He said, to paraphrase, that we should not let anyone see us giving to the needy.  If we “practice our righteousness before other people,” then we will receive the reward we are clearly looking for, the esteem of others.  When we have received that, then there is no more reward to be had by God.  

This is tragic, because Jesus died to set us free from the shame brought on by sinfulness, first seen in the garden (Gen 3:10).  It is this shame that compels us to practice righteousness in order to be seen. These righteous acts are like the fig leaves covering Adam and Eve.  The reward that Jesus desires for us is freedom from this shame. When we are free, then we are free to give in secret. 

The reward that the Father will give us is that of freedom from the bondage of needing the approval of others that we have been seeking to cover our shame, or our sense of worthlessness.  

Rather than fig leaves, Jesus is the animal skins that the Father so lovingly gave to Adam to cover him by his work, instead of Adam’s.  Jesus says to us by his coming and his death for us that we have no need to hide behind the approval of others. When we as Christians give in secret, we reinforce the truth and starve out the lie.  That reinforcement strengthens us at the core, bringing us more peace, more joy, more stability in Christ, more of the good kind of pride, better fellowship with God, because there is less hiding. The reward of the praise of man is a cheap substitute that will not pay off in the end and keeps us from the real prize.  

Praying in Secret

All the very same principles apply in the area of prayer.  If you want to see someone put on a show, put them in a corporate prayer session.  I am a pastor, and I weekly battle the temptation when praying at the end of a sermon to “perform” the closing prayer.  I don’t even realize when I’m doing it!  It’s easier for me to notice when others are doing it.  Granted, it takes a great deal of freedom to become the kind of person who will pray in front of others in the exact same way that he or she prays alone.  You don’t have to want to put on a show for that to be what happens. I would say that for 99% of us, it is the default.  But Jesus shows us here that by refusing to participate in the normal way of doing it, praying, at least partly, for show, and instead just pouring out your heart to God when you are praying with others, or even praying only alone for a while, we will receive a reward from God in the way of answered prayer, and as with the giving in secret, in the way of a strengthening of faith and character.  

Forgiveness 

Next, after teaching them the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches his disciples that they must forgive others or they will not be forgiven by their Heavenly Father. This is some strong language.  To fail to forgive others keeps you in the bondage of sin and hell, and proves that you’ve yet to understand and accept God’s forgiveness, either because you don’t think you need it, or you don’t think he is kind enough, or loves you enough to forgive you.  If you are holding any unforgiveness, stop everything and deal with it. God will help you. 

Fasting

Briefly, fasting is a spiritual discipline that can be helpful in learning to abide in Christ.  It is also super impressive to the churchy crowd that is impressed by that sort of thing. Knowing this, Jesus warns against the hypocritical tendency of religious folks to fast and make it clear to everyone how miserable they are because they are so holy and are not eating.  Once again, what is at issue is the bondage of needing to put on a show, for whatever reason, to impress others.  The more you will engage in these sorts of practices without telling anyone, the more you will be transformed into the likeness of Christ.  

The rest of the sermon on the mount deals less with living for the attention and praise of man, and more with an inward heart towards God. We will discuss it further in the coming days.

How Jesus Restores Mankind Part 3, on Lust and Sexuality

Yesterday we took a look at how Jesus redefines the severity of the anger problem, tying it to the heart behind hatred and murder. After his discourse on anger, Jesus moves to the topic of lust with an equally devastating redefinition.  

27 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt 5:27-28). 

For obvious reasons, this is devastating to those who, while they haven’t acted on their desires, have entertained thoughts and fantasies.  But why?  Doesn’t it mean something that we control our impulses to act, and relegate lust to feelings and thoughts? Perhaps, but again, let’s not assume that Jesus is only saying this in order to make us see how bad we are and drive us to the cross and our need for a savior.  Let’s assume that he wants us to have total freedom in this area.  

Why does it matter to God what we do with our minds and hearts?  The answer is that God doesn’t just care what we look like. He cares about who we are. He made us in his image to show the world what he is like, especially those of us who he has saved and filled with his Holy Spirit.  To entertain lustful thoughts, we must forget all that.  We must be like animals who don’t think, just move by instinct.  We must suspend our God-given abilities to step back and consider what is best. Not what is easy, fun, or what would satisfy our momentary craving, but what is best.  Is it good for us to forsake in our minds God’s desire for us to be pure?  Should we rebel against God by ignoring his instruction on sexual purity?

God created sex, and he designed the idea of romantic relationships.  How happy Adam must have been when God woke him up and presented him with the wife that he created from Adam’s own body.  “This is now flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone” (Gen 2:23). I can’t even imagine the joy of discovery that ensued.  This is God’s desire for all of us unless he specifically calls us to singleness (Mt 19:12).  It is a gift, a mind blowing gift.  There is no reason whatsoever to pervert that gift by using it in a lesser, cheaper way than how he intended it. Pornography is cheap. It does damage to us in so many ways, not to mention exploiting the brokenness of some young woman who doesn’t know God and has sold herself cheap.  Prostitution is even worse.  But even just plain old fashioned premarital sex doesn’t come close to the good design God has for love and relationship in a marriage.  It is a pathway to destruction of a relationship, to mistrust, to conflict. If you get married to the person you are crossing those lines with, there will be years of pain and mistrust to overcome together. Nothing is impossible with God, but it is usually very difficult to overcome. 

Jesus doubles down on this point and says that to look “at a woman with lustful intent” is to already commit adultery with her.  The same goes for women looking at men with lustful intent.  When you do that, man or woman, what does that say about the position of your heart?  What does that say about the belief that God is in your mind and sees what you see, hears what you think, and knows what you are?  If you can know Jesus’s words and ignore them, then I have to assume there is a good chance you don’t actually believe any of it.  God is watching. Always. To fear God is to believe that is true. To love God is to care what he thinks and love to please him.  But there is more to it than the fact that perversion dishonors the God who watches.  

Jesus is showing us the way to freedom.  

Do you want sexual freedom in the area of your actions?  Then get sexual freedom in the area of your thoughts.  The good news is not that God doesn’t want you to think about those things, perverting your spirit and dishonoring his, but that God has actually set you free from the compulsion to do those things, to think those things. Furthermore, he has something much, much better for you if you are married, especially if both of you are believers.  Do it right, and learn this.  

But maybe you aren’t married. Maybe you have no spiritually viable outlets for sexuality. Neither did Jesus. He was a single guy. Do you think he kept himself in check by repression? I don’t think so. I think Jesus understood reality well enough to know that even sex that is within the confines of holy matrimony is not the end all be all of abundant life. He knew that the love of a woman is not the greatest love of all; it is not the key to happiness and joy that our current culture believes that it is. This is one of Satan’s greatest lies. From what the Bible says, there will be no sex in heaven. No marriage (Mt 22:30). So, that tells me that what there is in terms of love and fulfillment is much, much greater. Jesus would have us see that now, take sex off of its current pedestal and start living. Romantic love pales in comparison to agape the love of the Father, the love for God with all our heart, soul, and strength, and the love for our neighbor as our self. It is the love that we must subordinate even the romantic love of our spouses to, if we are to have a godly, and healthy, even a romantically fulfilling marriage.

If all this sounds difficult and sacrificial, remember that Jesus is talking about freedom. What’s not to love about freedom? He came, lived, and died to set you free from sexual sin. Believe, and go free. Let’s talk more tomorrow about the sermon on the mount and what Jesus had to say about giving, praying, and fasting in secret