But when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing it’s an idol. When you’re willing to sin to feed it or sin if you think you’ll lose it, you may be feeding the beast.
Lent: Spring Cleaning For Your Soul
When anything in life is an absolute requirement for your happiness and self-worth, Timothy Keller writes, it is essentially an ‘idol,’ something you are actually worshipping.
I shared 4 “idol-identifying” questions a couple posts back. And when the Spirit convicts me of inordinate time and energy going into Facebook—specifically a Bible study ministry group—I’d best change that.
So then along comes Lent, a lovely 46 days (I’m including Sundays.) to forsake a good thing to make space for “more vibrant discipleship.” In other words, Lent is a great season to do some spring cleaning in your soul. It’s a great time to starve your idol.
So I’m fasting from Facebook and the hardest part of that will be laying aside my baby, my Isaac, my little Bible study ministry, the Wonders of the Word (WoW) group that I so enjoy.
Not, because WoW is bad, or Facebook is bad. So why give a good thing up?
Why My Facebook Fast?
It’s the same reason one friend is giving up a nightly glass of wine for the month of February, and another friend is fasting from sugar for 12 weeks.
Paul said it best in 1 Corinthians 6:12: “I have the right to do anything,” you say–but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”–but I will not be mastered by anything.
My focus, my energy, my “happiness and self-worth” even, is coming too much from my social media presence. I’m being mastered by a good thing— my online ministry. And any good think that is not God can morph into an idol.
That’s why you won’t see me on Facebook (or Instagram or Twitter) for a while. That is reason #3 for a Lenten fast .
The other two are described now, in a repost from April 2015, when I kissed ice cream good-bye.
Why give up a good thing? Why wage an optional war?
In a word, training. In four, Christ-exalting soul strength. Each time I skip a soft-serve and pass on pie a la mode, my soul gets a little stronger. Train yourself to be godly, Paul told Timothy. I from a little thing like ice cream and am strengthened for bigger battles against greed and pride, grumbling and envy.
It’s called resistance training.
Reason #1: Resistance training makes me stronger.
Lent is testing ground; a time for spiritual resistance training. It’s a battlefield of sorts. Fasting shows what controls me, what comforts me. It exposes what I really live by: ice cream and coffee, Facebook and fitness? Or every word that comes from the mouth of God?
Christian fasting-giving up a good gift for a time- is not about Stoic pride, or proving my love for God. It is about training in godliness. I work my soul in a new way to build spiritual fitness. It’s resisting what would lure my heart away from my all-glorious, all-satisfying God.
Fasting increases the strength of my soul. so, I will not be mastered by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12). That is why I kissed ice cream good-bye.
If I can’t deny myself ice cream for six weeks, how can I resist the more habit-forming, tempting tastes of pride and envy, of anger and impatience?
A heaping bowl after dinner and a long run every morning and notices on my phone could all have me for breakfast. When my happiness hinges on those, I’m done. I’m captive.
All are innocent pleasures. Caffeine and ice cream, Facebook and fitness are gifts from God. And all can move subtly to become an end in themselves. To enslave. Ice cream has that power?
It does. Or did. And so does coffee in the morning and posting that elusive “100 likes” photo. A sub-seven minute mile can do it for me, too.
But I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing his suffering, becoming like him in death (Philippians 3 :10-11). Starting with these little denial deaths. Paul said he counted everything rubbish that he could know Christ. Little food and Facebook fasts make me strong for big soul fights, because in them I know Christ better.
But there’s one more big I kissed ice cream good-bye.
Reason #2. God gets glory when we call on him for help to resist temptation.
C. S. Lewis hinted at it. Only those who try to resist temptation knows how strong it is, he wrote. And Christ is the only one who never yielded to temptation.
Jesus was like us in every respect, and because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Hebrews 2:14-15). He can sympathize with our weakness, because in every respect he has been tempted as we are, yet was without sin.
And here is how Christ is exalted. It’s when we confidently draw near to the throne of grace, to receive mercy-forgiveness when we fall– and find grace-power to keep from falling-to help us in our time of need (Hebrews 4:15-16).
He gives mercy and grace. I call, tempted and weak. Christ answers, sympathetic and strong. I called, you answered; my strength of soul you increased(Psalm 138:3).
That exchange- I call, God answers- is soul-strengthening, Christ-exalting soul training.
But what does look like in real life?
For me, it looks like closing the freezer without sneaking a bite from the pint in the back. And refusing to peek at Facebook one last time to check if someone liked my post. At Arby’s last week it was Thank you Jesus as the rest of the family shared a Jamocha milkshake.
That’s freedom. It’s starving idols that would ensnare and enslave me. That’s some Lenten cleaning for my soul. But we don’t go it alone.
We don’t call uncle; we call Jesus.
Help me stand stand firm. Fill the hollowness. And please remind me of your truth. Like this.
It might be countering your itch for human praise with this reminder: Let another praise you and not your own lips.
Or dueling with envy the minute he starts to whisper, You ought to have a four bedroom, sunny-side house. Nope: Godliness with contentment is great gain.
And striking with the sword of the Spirit when despair over a failed friendship falls. Why so downcast, O my soul? Put your hope in God. He’s the lifter of your face.
Or wielding the Word to kill worry when the infection spreads to your kids. Cast your cares upon him, for he cares for you. And, Commit your way to the Lord.
Or trading gratitude for grumbling, when we feel entitled to better this, or more that. In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
That’s how God gets glory when we strength train. The One who was tempted in every way, who is right now interceding for us, His strength is exalted when I work my soul muscles.
Then we really know the truth we talk: no temptation can seize us beyond what we can bear. God truly is faithful to provide a way out so we can stand up under it. That kind of resistance strengthens our spiritual muscles.
Yes, we are a Resurrection People; Christ is Risen indeed! My sin is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more. We stand forgiven at the cross. But our battles aren’t over yet.
Jesus suffered and died so I won’t have to suffer is NOT its message. It’s He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24).
The cross isn’t just past. The word of the crossis to us who are being saved the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). John Piper says the cross of Christ is not merely a past place of substitution. It’s also a present place of daily execution.
It is not just history. It’s a present way of life for the Christian. It’s Colossians 3:5, Put to death what is earthly in you. It is Roman’s 6:11, Consider yourself dead to sin and alive to Christ. And, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
But remember, fasting and denying are not ends in themselves. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it (Luke 9:23-24). The Lenten fast always leads to the Easter feast.
In heaven there will be no self-denial because none of our desires will tend toward sin. We’ll be with the Bridegroom and we won’t fast. Oh no. We will feast.
That this our fast of forty days, May work our profit and Thy praise!
The ancient hymn, Audi benigne Conditordescribes the bonds between our bodies and souls. Anthony Esolen’s translation beautifully expresses how God is glorified when we bring both into subjection. When we resistance train in the present power of the cross.
Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other. Nehemiah 4:17b
It was incidental and mentioned merely in passing. It wasn’t the point.
But on the heals of that weekend, smarting from that blast from a friend and that hideous snarl from my mouth, the pastor’s almost throwaway line was the point.
When The Enemy’s Up To Something
Because I was thinking of hanging up my work clothes and throwing down the trowel.
Because even though I’d confessed, I felt like a fraud. Like I’d disqualified myself from ministry. Lead that life group in the afternoon? Share my faith with younger believers? Expand God’s kingdom? I wasn’t equal. The Accuser had me right where he wanted me.
Since the Fall, the enemy has tried to bait us with lies and lure us into sin. He does this because we are God’s witnesses to the world. He does this to keep us from carrying out the Great Commission, from making disciples. That’s why he seeks to devour us (1 Pet. 5:8).
Chuck Lawless explains: The enemy wants us to mess up (fall into sin), give up (get discouraged), get puffed up (live in arrogance), split up (divide), or shut up (quit evangelizing).
To mess up, give up, get puffed up, split up, or shut up- that’s what the enemy’s up to.
Stand Tall, In His Strength
But God calls us- which means He also enables us- to stand against the enemy (Eph. 6:11, 13, 14). Paul is our precedent. He kept on with kingdom work in the face of opposition. Pray that I may proclaim the gospel boldly. That was Paul’s prison request. (Eph. 6:18–20).
“Standing” -sword in one hand, trowel in the other- meant that he would keep preaching if it cost him his life. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18a), Paul wrote. He knew, sorely opposed saints must know, that no one is strong enough-or weak enough- to fall away while God is resolved to hold us.
Lawless explains, We put on the full armor of God not so we can defend ourselves, but so we can…do the work of the Great Commission.
Which brings me right back to that sermon last Sunday.
Don’t Let Opposition Stop You
The sermon was not about Nehemiah and Co. rebuilding the wall. It was about Great Commission at the end of Matthew 28. But when I paged back to Nehemiah 4 and the opposition I faced suddenly paled.
First, the enemy fire:
Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. And he said, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? They won’t finish up in a day. Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!”
Then came friendly fire, from fellow Jews:
In Judah it was said, “The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.”…At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, “You must return to us.”
But all that opposition didn’t stop Nehemiah and the Jerusalem wall building crew.
If You’re Doing God’s Work, Never, Never, Never Give Up
The point was: Don’t give up. Don’t throw in the trowel. Opposition is not a license to quit. Nehemiah didn’t.
When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work. From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail…Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other. And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built.
They kept building God’s kingdom in the face of opposition, with trowels and swords. We must do the same when we face opposition.
Including opposition from our flesh that wages war within.
A Violent Streak
Nehemiah’s wall builders carried swords to fight enemies outside the wall, but we do battle with the enemy inside our skin.
Which reminds me of a John Piper quote that comes to mind again and again, when I fail again and again. It reassures me that battling my indwelling sin is par for the course.
There is a mean, violent streak in the true Christian life! But violence against whom, or what? Not other people. It’s a violence against all the impulses in us that would be violent to other people. It’s a violence against all the impulses in our own selves that would make peace with our own sin and settle in with a peacetime mentality…
If by the Spirit you kill the deeds of your own body, you will live. Christianity is war — on our own sinful impulses.
That’s why I need a sword.
Sword And Trowel
But I also need a trowel. Because building the spiritual kingdom- making disciples- is the Christian’s call.
So it’s no stigma to carry a sword with your trowel. In fact, it’s just hearing Paul’s call to “take heed” (1 Cor. 10:12, 16:13) and Christ’s call to “be on guard” (Mk. 8:15, Luke 12:15). In Nehemiah 4:9, we read that after the enemy showed itself, “We prayed to our God and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night.” And by grace, the work continued.
Battle sin, build God’s kingdom. Sword in one hand, trowel in the other. That’s how we build God’s kingdom. We can’t let opposition stop us.
We cannot use the excuse that we haven’t arrived to disengage from the work. My ugly outburst discouraged me. But, thanks to Pastor Matthew’s mid-message nod to Nehemiah, it did not disqualify me from serving.
It did not keep me from teaching truth on Sunday or listening to a hurting friend on Monday or taking Sunday school girls out for smoothies on Tuesday.
It could have, but God spoke straight to my discouraged heart in that quick mention of “trowel in one hand, sword in the other,” Sunday morning.
We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up.
C. S. Lewis, Letters, 1/20/42
Why We Don’t Resolve
Only one of five was. Some of the five shrugged. One shook her head and grimaced.
Why don’t we start the New Year with a resolution or two? Reasons tend to fall in one of two groups: either for sloth of soul or for fear of failure. I’ll explain.
1. Some of us opt out of New Year’s Resolutions because they’re so much work. We like comfort and a fast fix. Saying no to nighttime snacks and prepping salads for tomorrow’s lunch instead – these take diligence and effort and self-control.
And we don’t want to dig in for what might be a duel to the death. We’ve got work to do and kids to feed. Maybe next year. We’re not ready for that fight. Not yet.
2. Some of us resist resolutions because we know we’ll fall. Whether in two months or two days or two hours, it’ll happen. We’ll succumb. I’ll eat that bowl of ice cream at 10 pm and interrupt my friend, again. It’s only a matter of time.
But could it be that we fear stumbling on the right road more than we fear drifting along the wrong road?
Because we’re afraid of getting dirty, we let the perfect become the enemy of the good. We’re afraid to run and fall in the mud.
Which is why you might actually consider making these three resolves.
1. RESOLVE: To know God’s power in the fight.
C.S. Lewis knew of whence we speak, of what we fear, at the start of this new year.
I know all about the despair of overcoming chronic temptations. It is not serious, provided self-offended petulance, annoyance at breaking records, impatience etc. don’t get the upper hand. No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up. It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us: it is the very sign of his presence. (Letters, January 20, 1942)
So up and at ’em. Get in the fray. God is present with us in our muck.
Though a righteous man falls seven times, he gets up again (Proverbs 24:16a). Muddy and sweaty, maybe trembling or scraped, the righteous get back up.
But cowards watch unscathed from the couch. And cuddled up, clean and dry, they probably don’t much notice God’s power. They don’t feel his forgiveness and grace, helping them up.
We don’t know the strength of the wind until we try to walk against it and we don’t know the force of the evil within us until we try to fight it.
But, we also don’t know the power of God to strengthen us until we resolve, face off, do battle against the besetting sins and bad habits that would have us bound.
It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish. -Sam Gamgee
Waiting can be costly. Strike while the iron’s hot. Resolve now. Agony comes when we wait too long, from thinking I wish I would have.
Rory Vaden is a motivational speaker. It’s hard to argue his premise that success of any sort requires self-discipline. He quips,
Procrastination and indulgence are nothing more than creditors that charge you interest.
He’s right. We eat too much and we feel sick and gain weight. That’s costly. We spew angry words and lose friends. Very costly. We don’t proof our messages and take triple the time undoing the confusion. Big interest. Procrastination and indulgence are costly.
Left unchecked, they cost us our souls. Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion (Hebrews 3:15).
Get started. Resolve today.
3. RESOLVE: To exalt Christ in the good fight and when you fall.
The Apostle Paul was a resolver. He resolved, he made it his ambition, to preach where Christ had not been named (Romans 15:10), to know nothing but Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2), to minister in Rome (Acts 19:21) to name a few.
You might not know this, but Paul also encouraged us to make resolutions. To make faith-filled resolves for good.
My proof text for urging you to make good resolves is 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12,
To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul’s train of thought here is important for us to understand in order to make good resolutions. Not all resolutions are good resolutions. Because without faith it’s impossible to please God and whatever does not come from faith is sin. Resolves that are made, and-even worse-kept, without faith cannot be good and only tend to pride.
Yes, definitely- count the cost(Luke 14:28). Don’t be like the guy who started the tower and got laughed out of town because he didn’t have the resources to finish. If you are in Christ, you do have the resources. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work for you (Eph. 2:19-20).
But then, make good resolves by faith, relying on God’s power to help us will and act. And refuse to see failure as a sign that you’re on the wrong path.
The fact that you get mud on the windshield and temporarily lose sight of your goal and swerve, doesn’t mean that you’re on the wrong race track.
If you were, the enemy wouldn’t bother you. What the mud really means, John Piper explains (Future Grace, p. 55),
[I]s that you should turn on the windshield wipers and use your windshield washer.
Be encouraged. The mud means you’re right on track. Spiritual growth ahead.
Resolve Now. Quit Limping.
The opposite of resolved is not a happy-go-lucky drift to holiness. We only drift one direction and it’s not toward heaven. Not to resolve is to be undecided and irresolute.
Not to resolve is to limp between two opinions and to think, I really should stop ____ (eating, scrolling, interrupting), but not yet.
So when should we resolve?
Whenever we see something we should be doing that we’re not doing we should resolve to do it and whenever we see something we’re doing that we shouldn’t be doing, we should resolve not to. To walk worthy, to see God’s power, to exalt Jesus. We should resolve. January first or December 31st and any day in between.
How long will you go on limping between two opinions? If the Lord is God follow him, if Baal is God follow him, Elijah challenged the Israelites.
It’s the same today. If God is strong and your resolve is born of faith and for good, don’t be irresolute. Resolve. Don’t go on limping.
Oh, sure, we’ll fail and stumble and get a little muddy. But we will rise.
And the towels will be out and our clean clothes waiting.
Now to Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy,to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
In the span of two hours, they came. Bing-bing, bing-bing.
First, the text: Please pray- my brother was just in a hit and run. Taken by Flight for Life. Might be head injuries and for sure broken bones. Please, just pray. I moan- I can’t help but moan and wince in pain- and pray.
Next, the post: One more pumpkin in the pumpkin patch, was how a cousin’s pregnancy announcement came. No, even at 43, the empty womb hasn’t said, “enough.”Still, I push, Congrats on such a precious gift!
Then: It was one year ago this weekend that we lost our baby. I was only 12 weeks along, but I can’t stop thinking about her. The tears just stream. Instantly, my own eyes water. I can’t help but hug this friend.
Last: I just started at my dream job this week, she said with glee. In fact, the board actually created the position for me. It’s a perfect fit. I swallow hard, My job is not a perfect fit. Especially not this week. Still.
Rejoice with those who rejoice.
Natural or Supernatural?
Is it easy for you? I mean, rejoicing with those who rejoice? Does that empathy come naturally?
For many of us, it’s the weeping part that’s easy. After all, it’s a rare person who is not touched by the sight of someone in distress.
But sharing others’ joy can be hard, especially if their success is right near our wheelhouse- or would-be wheelhouse. I admit: when ugly envy besets me, it suffocates my joy-sharing empathy.
John Piper details several reasons we might not rejoice with those who rejoice. And rock bottom for most of us with this problem is the life-choking weed of pride. Because the self-preoccupied- whether with disappointment and hurt or with a sense of superiority- find it hard to rejoice in another’s success.
Because the one rejoicing has probably had a great success or bit of good fortune. Then this element of competition comes in…. It’s innate within human nature. We want to become high and great and important. It is one of the main things that happened to man after the Fall: he became proud and self-centered…
And so we find it easy to sympathize with people who are not successful. They are not in competition with us. We feel we are in a better position. We’re up and they’re down, so we can afford to weep with them. It’s more or less natural.
Yes, for me the weeping part is natural. It’s the other that’s supernatural.
For so much of my own spiritual stretching has been related to those times I’m called not only to do, but to feel a certain way and I can’t seem to feel it- like joy.
At those times, I return to this practical advice from C.S. Lewis, What are [you] to do? The answer is the same as before. Act as if you did. Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings. Ask yourself, ‘If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?’ When you have found the answer, go and do it. The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.
Rejoicing doesn’t always feel like 100% authentic Abigail. Rejoicing with those who rejoice can feel like pretending. The joyful kind of empathic love doesn’t always come naturally. We know that the natural is opposed to the spiritual, that the flesh and the spirit conflict.
So no matter if sharing the joy doesn’t feel natural. God’s rule is simple: Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. Don’t waste time worrying if you feel the joy. Do not worry if it feels artificial to smile and say about–his huge new house, or her wedding gown or his all-star son- That’s great!
Saying it might feel fake. But that’s okay.
Rejoice with those who rejoice.
A Very Fine Nature
Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathise with a friend’s success.What Oscar Wilde- a paragon, by the way, of a natural, self-preoccupied life- called a “very fine nature,” I call a “new creation.”
You’re absolutely right: No one can ever do this for himself. No natural man cannot do this. Only the new creation can. It’s only as we work out while the Spirit works in that we can genuinely share the joy.
It’s only by grace through faith in Christ that I’m able to set aside my hurt and disappointment and pride so I can rejoice with those who are rejoice in things that aren’t mine.
One trademark of our faith is that we are members of the same family and the same body. Nothing can happen to them unless it happens to you. When one member suffers, all the other members suffer with it [1 Cor. 12:26]. Whatever happens to the other is really happening to you. The body cannot be divided into segments that are not connected. No, no- the body is one and organic and whole. An infection in the little toe can soon cause a headache.
When we show the joy, we might be surprised to find our friends’ joy really does become ours.
Not the Apostle Paul. No, I worked harder than all of them–yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me (1 Cor. 15:10). In fact, I’ve heard it said, that there is not more thorough test of our profession of the Christian faith than just this, that we:
Rejoice with those who rejoice.
Back to bing-bing #4. Remember that conversation with the friend who just landed that highly-satisfying, custom-fit job? I smiled, leaned in and asked,
So can you show me some of your work?
She did. She took me to an amazing website she’d built. And it was. It was a perfect fit for her passion and skill.
Then by some miracle of grace, it came. Genuine joy- the feeling not just the showing- welled up in me and I really did,