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How Not to Be a Mule: Come, Unbridled

mule with bridle eating grass

Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you. Psalm 32:9

About Mules

A mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. They’re said to be more hardy than horses and more intelligent than donkeys.

Still, being likened to a mule isn’t exactly a compliment.

My uncle owned a mule named Petey. Petey was both strong and headstrong. Life on the farm was good for Petey the Mule.

But one day, which happened to be manure hauling day, “Petey decided he no longer liked his ears touched. This caused problems putting on his halter and bridle,” Uncle John posted. “He developed some escape routes which included trying to run Farmer John over; thankfully this isn’t Farmer John’s first rodeo.”

Thankfully, God can relates to mules too. He’s familiar with beasts that charge and beasts that avoid.

But, biblically, what is it that makes mules so mulish?

Hint: It’s what our kids do when they refuse to come and confess that he stole the candy or broke the lamp or lost his Fitbit, again.

That is, they refuse to come to us until after they’re busted outright or the guilt gets so heavy they simply can’t bear it. That’s mulish.

And foolish.

About The Most Happy-Making Thing You Can Do

In Psalm 32, this is the behavior in view: Refusing to come and confess to the one who freely forgives.

Staying away from God when we sin is irrational-without understanding. Because confessing to the God who already knows and freely forgives is one of the most happy-making things we can ever do.

In fact, that’s how David begins Psalm 32, with a double-whammy description, and prescription, for happiness:

Happy is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

The way to be happy and blessed is to go and confess.

Why Mulish Is Foolish

Which is exactly why the next two verses in Psalm 32 contrast this path to happiness:

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Pity the fool, the mule, who does that- who stays silent and far away from the Master.

But mules do. They are silent, slow and stubborn. Mules need pressure applied to come to the master. They must be curbed with bit and bridle. That’s why God’s hand feels heavy on us sometimes, like Farmer John’s did on Petey the Mule that day.

I put pressure on you when you were sinning and neglecting me, our Master might explain, so that you’d come back to me. But I wish you’d just come freely. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.

Not Confessing Is Irrational

In case you missed it, avoiding the master is irrational. It is not acting in accord with the truth that repentance brings refreshment and confession clears the conscience. It is living as if estranged relationships and hidden sin are to be preferred over restored relationships and forgiveness. That is foolish. Mulish.

Like when son-who-shall-not-be-named confesses to eating my prized Dove Dark only after I show him the wrapper I found under his bed and not a moment before.

To be human rather than horse or mule, is to be rational. To be rational is to realize that we will be happier when our sin is confessed and covered by God.

And that when we cover it, he will not, but that when we uncover our sin before God, he will cover it (Psalm 32)

Life on the Farm

Mules live on farms. Here John Piper expands the image for us:

Maybe we should try to picture God’s people as a farmyard of all sorts of animals. God cares for his animals, he shows them where they need to go, and supplies a barn for their protection. But there is one beast on this farm that gives God an awful time, namely, the mule…

God likes to get his animals to the barn for food and shelter by simply calling them.

Or even with a look.

Steered With a Look, or a Bit?

Psalm 32:8 says, “I will counsel you with my eye upon you.”

My Mom says that I was disciplined with a look as a child. All it took was the look, and I’d usually come around. I’d curb my tongue or knock it off or change my tune.

If only the grown-up Abigail was always so sensitive to God’s eye.

But sometimes I’m a mule. Sometimes God has to put the bridle of suffering on me and drag me from danger. I completely agree with John Piper that,

A guilty conscience and all the agonies that go with it is a merciful gift to the unrepentant.

Piper continues the barnyard analogy, “So God gets in his pickup truck and goes out in the field, puts the bit and bridle in the mule’s mouth, hitches it to the truck, and drags him stiff-legged and snorting all the way into the barn.”

But we’d be better off and so much happier if we just came with a look or a call.

Repentance Brings Refreshment

But isn’t all this come and confess talk very gloomy? you ask.

C.S. Lewis answers that question like this,

It is not even, in the long run, very gloomy. A serious attempt to repent and to really know one’s own sin is in the long run a lightening and relieving process. Of course, there is bound to be a first dismay and often terror and later great pain, yet that is much less in the long run than the anguish of a mass of unrepented and unexamined sins, lurking in the background of our minds. It is the difference between the pain of a tooth about which you should go to the dentist, and the simple straight-forward pain which you know is getting less and less every moment when you have had the tooth out.

C.S. Lewis, “Miserable Offenders,” God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970) 120-121. 

I bear witness: confessing is happy-making. In the moment, it’s humbling and hard and it hurts. But, “‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘Tis a gift to come down to where we ought to be.”

Isn’t it?

In fact, isn’t being forgiven about the most lightening and relieving, soul-healing and refreshing gift a sinful soul can ever receive?

In Acts 3, Peter preached just that:Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins mat be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.

Repentance brings refreshment.

How Not to be a Mule

Sometimes it is the bit of affliction and the bridle of suffering that makes us come to him. Or, to borrow David’s words, to stay near him.

It is much to be deplored that we so often need to be severely chastened before we will obey. We ought to be as a feather in the wind, wafted readily in the breath of the Holy Spirit, but alas! we lie like motionless logs, and stir not with heaven itself in view. Those cutting bits of affliction show how hard mouthed we are, those bridles of infirmity manifest our headstrong and willful manners. We should not be treated like mules if there was not so much of the ass about us. If we will be fractious, we must expect to be kept in with a tight rein. Oh, for grace to obey the Lord willingly…

C.H. Spurgeon, Commentary on Psalm 32

We should not be treated like mules if there was not so much ass about us. Oh, for grace to obey the Lord willingly. Ouch. And amen.

Do you know this?

I mean, know it? I confess that I must re-learn that confession is good for the soul. Like when I sent that early morning apology text (there have been plenty of others since) and when I made a mule of myself on an Irish mountain. And this weekend when I marched up the steps away from a sister, and my mule snorts woke me up and turned me right back down to confess, “I’m sorry I was rude.”

In summary, not being a mule means staying near God without being forced. It means praying to God before his hand is heavy on you. It means confessing your sins to Him straightaway. Before you’re busted.

That is how NOT to be a mule.

And when I do come to him and confess, he will freely forgive. He will tenderly take my chin in his hand and lift my humbled head.

My unbridled, forgiven head.

You, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head.

Psalm 3:3

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The First Point Luther Nailed And How It’s Still Reforming Me

Wise men are men, and truth is truth. -Richard Hooker

Martin Luther, like the other epic hero Reformers, was only a man and a flawed one at that.  His “Jewish Problem” was evil. This post won’t attempt to whitewash a sinful saint named Martin Luther.

But, in point of fact, it always has been flawed ones that God uses to build- and reform-his Son’s Bride. And since it was October 31, 1517- 500 years ago to the day- that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door at All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg and with that stroke, set off the Protestant Reformation and since his reforms still impact sinning saints like me, I thank God for Martin Luther today,

Like him or not, there’s a lot we can all learn from Luther. Like his concept of Christian repentance- which happens to be the very first of the 95 theses.

Luther’s First Thesis: A Life Of Repentance

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. That’s it. The first thesis.
Biblically defined repentance is changing one’s mind, so that one lives differently (see Thesis #3). It means turning from sin to Christ. Repentance is the path to forgiveness of sins and favor with God. We repent and believe and are saved (Matt. 4:17, Mark 6:12, Acts 2:38, Acts 26:20).
But repentance  doesn’t end when we receive Christ Jesus as Lord. It’s a life-long process. It’s not, as Luther wrote (Thesis #2), a sacrament of penance administered by the clergy. That’s not so much the issue today as the notion that repentance is one and done. As if real Christians, strong Christians, are the one who never have to turn from sin, who never have to repent. The ones who might say, Oh, no. I’ve never changed my stance. I’ve always lived this way.

Really?  I think. Because it seems like that means you’re either omniscient, God-like and divine or proud, deceived and blind. And I betray my own proud, sinful heart.

Because, truth be told, we don’t see all of our sin at once. Our sins are layered, like onions. We peel a layer off and- lo! and behold- there’s another. We don’t see all our sin. 

From as much as you know of your sin…

Which is why I like Pastor Colin Smith‘s definition of repentance so much. He explains,

Repentance is turning from as much as you know of your sin, to give as much as you know of yourself to as much as you know of God. 

This definition, like Luther’s first thesis, helps me see repentance as a lifelong pursuit, a way of living. Not one and done. We repent as we see more of our sin. We don’t see it all at once, and maybe that’s a mercy for we’d all be so overwhelmed.

Sinners are comfortable with sin. Christians are not. We regret it and don’t settle with it. Seeing  own need to repent for caving to  impatience or harshness or envy or pride as a healthy, ongoing part of life helps me press on and do it. To repent, that refreshing might come. Luther, and Pastor Smith, help me see that there’s no shame in repenting.

Isn’t that what we teach our kids? Just admit that you know what you did is wrong and you want to go the right way. That repenting a really big thing to do? That it means Jesus is at work in you?

We’ve got to live like repentance is okay.  We’ve got to confess and repent of our sins. And welcome the confessions of others. We’ve got to normalize repentance. Because our Christian lives are continual mid-point correction, like swimming to a target on the beach when your dominant arm always pulls your front crawl that way.

We constantly reorient our strokes, our walk, our lives to align to as much as we know of our Lord.

Not a man who never goes wrong

You might say we’re in constant reforming mode. By grace alone, through Christ alone, we’re constantly, “making good.” My Reformation Study Bible explains repentance is the ongoing turning from sin in the life of a Christian. Ordinary Christian life will include times of profound sorrow for remaining sin. So good grief, and the repentance that follows is part and parcel of ordinary Christian life.

Continually turning from our sin, to our compassionate, gracious Savior who is Himself in us. Repenting, then is a revelation of the mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Because like C.S. Lewis explained,

A live body is not one that never gets hurt, but one that can to some extent repair itself. In the same way a Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble—because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ Himself carried out.  (Mere Christianity 1952; Harper Collins: 2001. 62-63).

Christians stumble. We go wrong. We see our sin and get up and repent. And run on and stumble and see more of our sin and repent.
So, with Christ in us, repairing us all the time, as we see our sin, we repent. But try as we might, we’ll never see it all.

The answer we need when we don’t see it all

Don’t despair. Our Maker knows our frame.

And He knew his servant Martin Luther’s flawed frame too. He saw the sin that Luther himself couldn’t see in himself and, therefore, could not repent of and confess. But seeing Luther’s spiritual blindness, takes us straight back to one of the most precious Reformation truths.

Now I borrow from Trevin Wax to close. 

Luther’s anti-Semitism, egregious as it is, does not lead me to abandon his rediscovery of justification; it leads me to lean harder into it. Here’s the glorious truth: the reality Luther saw so clearly provides the answer to the sin he didn’t.

In other words, Luther discerned the reality of justification by faith alone better than he discerned the sinfulness in his own heart and life. And it’s that reality of justification by faith alone that levels us all and drives us to our knees–thankful for the clear example of horrendously flawed theologians articulating the only doctrine that gives hope to all of us who are horrendously flawed. It’s only in the security of being wrapped up in the righteousness of Christ that we can say, “Challenge me, Lord. Change me, Lord. Expose my wickedness.”

In the end, when death came for Luther’s mortal body, and the last of his parasitical sinfulness was destroyed, his final words contained no more vile epithets toward the Jews, but only a deathbed confession of his Jewish Messiah: “We are beggars; this is true.”

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  

Romans 5:1-2