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.
Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is… You find out the strength of the wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. –C.S. Lewis
Something MUST be wrong, she said. I still struggle with the same sins that I did ten years ago. I struggle to forgive the same old things and sometimes I still get so mad at the kids. And just when I think I’ve got my discontentment nipped, a new envy blossom buds.
No matter how hard I try and how much I pray and try to rely on the Spirit, I just can’t seem to master these things. Something must be wrong. This stuff should be overcome by now. Has a friend ever confided that sort of frustration to you? Or maybe you are that discouraged friend? And you- or your friend- have wondered, If Christ made me new and lives in my heart wouldn’t these battles be over? Shouldn’t the struggle be done?
I should be over this.
Not so fast, Sherlock. Who says your struggles should be done?
Chesterton knew: A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it. Paul, knew too, that it’s only when the Spirit brings life that the struggle comes: The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other to prevent you from doing what you would” (Galatians 5:16).
The point?Real Christians experience real struggle. Even when we’re converted, new creations, there is such a thing as indwelling sin. John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, also knew the reality of clingy, indwelling sin.
It is inseparable from us, as the shadow from our bodies when the sun shines upon us. The holiness of a sinner does not consist in a deliverance from it, but in being sensible of it, striving against it, and being humbled under it, and taking occasion from thence to admire our Savior, and rejoice in him as our complete righteousness and sanctification.
So don’t let a flawed description of the Christian life bring you down. A Christian isn’t someone who doesn’t experience bad desires. No- a Christian is a person who struggles with those bad desires by the Holy Spirit’s power.
Conflict in your soul is not all bad. Even though we long for the day when our flesh will be utterly defunct and only pure and loving desires will fill our hearts, yet there is something worse than the war within between flesh and Spirit; namely, no war within because the flesh controls the citadel and all the outposts. Praise God for the war within! Serenity in sin is death. The Spirit has landed to do battle with the flesh. So take heart if your soul feels like a battlefield at times. The sign of whether you are indwelt by the Spirit is not that you have no bad desires, but that you areat warwith them!
The Spirit has landed. But the road to victory is not easy.
The Long Hard Road
For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. Romans 7:15
The author of Hebrews wrote that we who have believed enter that rest, and verses later urges, Let us therefore strive to enter that rest. The same Paul who wrote that blessed verse we love to quote, If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old is gone. Behold! All things are new. (2 Corinthians 5:17) also wrote, I discipline (or pommel) my body and keep it under control (1 Corinthians 9:27).
That’s boxing-ring, fight talk, not victory-lap chat.
Even when Jesus called the weary and heavy-ladened to come to him for rest, he calls them to take up his yoke and burden. These are easy and light, because they are borne with Christ, I think. But still, Christ calls them yoke and burden (Matthew 11:28-30).
Another verse we sheep love to quote, I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly, is followed by the Good Shepherd’s reference to laying down his life. And that was laced with bloody-tears and struggle (Luke 22:42-44).
In “The Cross of Least Resistance,” (Touchstone, March/April 2017) Robin Phillips asks,
If Christ himself struggles to be obedient to his Father’s will (Matt. 26:36-44), why should we as his followers expect anything less? On the contrary, if we want to be Christ’s disciples and experience abundant life, there is only one way: we must embrace the struggle, take up our cross, and follow him.
In other words, if we’ve been in the “struggle-is-bad” crowd, we’ve got to get out. We’ve got to see that perseverance in the good fight with the steadfastness of Christis cause to rejoice. Rather than seeing struggle as bad, we’ve got to see struggle against sin as evidence of spiritual life.
Maybe, we even praise God for the war within!
Let Go And Let God?
Let go and let God is not a Bible verse. I’ve fought the good fight, I’ve finished the race, and Take up the whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and We take every thought captive to obey Christ, and If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body you will live- those are.
Oh, sure- to be fair, we are definitely called to come to Christ, and lie down in green pastures and rest. And to throw off everything that hinders and the sin that entangles. But why? So that we may run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Christ. But perseverance and running sound a lot more like struggle than let go and let God and give up the fight.
But, okay. In a way we are called to let go. To let go of our selfish desires, to put off and put away all manner of sin (Ephesians 4:22-32, Colossians 3:8-14). We are to cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Hebrews says, there is a Sabbath-rest for the people of God (4:10). But the following verse says, Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.
And if by let God, we mean, Keep in step with the Spirit and put on the Lord Jesus Christ, which incidentally is followed by, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Romans 13:12-14)- well then, Amen!- let God. Let God control you. Or like Paul wrote, the love of Christ controls us (2 Corinthians 5:14).
All the warfare and athletic metaphors in the New Testament and Paul’s own example of fighting the good fight and finishing the race point to this one thing: the Christian life, the normal Christian life necessarily involves struggle. Until the mortal is swallowed up by life, there will at least some level of Spirit-flesh fight.
No, whatever letting go means, biblically it does not mean struggle-free. To the Philippians, Paul wrote, Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is Christ who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose (2:12-13). He put it this way in 1 Corinthians 15:10, But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
Work is involved. Struggling and wrestling are not abnormal. Far from it. They are the precise means God uses to grow strong saints. And to magnify his sufficient, glorious grace.
Why Struggle Is Good
The language of the New Testament describes the Christian life as a life of growth and increasing spiritual strength. We’re born again as infants. But Scripture says we grow. We’re called children and young men or older women, even fathers in faith. Grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, Peter wrote.
It’s in our struggle we grow and build our stamina. That’s why I used an Asian style math with the boys. I wanted to see them persist, to struggle a bit, in their work. They did the kind of problems that take 10 minutes of trial and error. Of fight. These same behaviors that American regard as failing, the Japanese think of as learning.
Persevering through setbacks sets us up for future success and spiritual strength.
Paul pleaded three times for his thorn in the flesh, his harassing messenger of Satan to be removed. You know what God said: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
Paul got it. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10).
Do we get it? Or do we think being in Christ on this earth means that we get to shed all our weakness and let go of our struggle? That comfortable here is our right? That grace comes better when there’s no indwelling sin left to fight?
Do we know that groaning and grit lead to spiritual growth? That struggle and stress and strain are God-ordained means to rely on his grace?
The Burden That’s Lifted When You Don’t Let Go
Can we be clear that spiritual struggle is not out of place for the Christian? That, quite possibly, if by Spirit, we’re struggling against sin we’re right where God wants us to be, on the high road to holiness where God’s grace strengthens us weak, struggling saints?
Realizing then, that spiritual struggle and facing ongoing temptation are God’s normal means to growing us up into Jesus and getting us more dependent on Christ– actually lifts the burden.
We don’t see struggle as sign that something is wrong with us anymore, but as confirmation that something is quite right. When we see the struggle as part of the growth and grace process we’re able to reframe our daily temptations and inner battles as opportunities to grow spiritually. We stop struggling against struggle.We see that rather than being a sign of failure and futility, our struggles might very well be evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in us. After all, if God’s grace was not at work, strengthening us, we would surely have given up.
So you’re struggling. That just might just be a good thing. Because it’s not only the force of wind we feel when we stand against. We feel the power of God’s sufficient grace, too.
Looking To Christ’s Sufficient Grace
In Newton On The Christian Life, Tony Reinke presents a beautiful and compelling portrait of a man who reveled in God’s sovereign, sufficient and boundless grace. To all of us who would despond in our ongoing sin struggles Newton (via Reinke) writes:
To not feel the sting of sin is a form of sickness, a deadness, a leprosy of the soul. But to feel the sting of sin is a mark of health, a sign of life, and a necessary experience if we are to appreciate the sin-conquering work of Christ (p. 123).
Our struggle, then, against sin is good insomuch as it makes us,
[W]onder how such a weak sinner’s faith has been sustained. Indwelling sin should cause us to marvel when we awake each morning with a remaining spark of hope and faith in Jesus. The faith-sustaining grace proves the power, wisdom, faithfulness, and love of God toward us. How can it not? Faith survives in the most unlikely of places: within us! (p. 115)
Like a spark burning in the water. That’s how Newton sized up Christ’s power in maintaining us-his own work- in the midst of such opposition, such struggle. Opposition which includes our pesky, clinging indwelling sin.
While Newton is most famous for the phrase amazing grace, he much preferred the phrase sufficient grace (p. 42). In fact, he actually wrote another song about grace titled, aptly, “My Grace Is Sufficient For Thee.”
Reinke describes this song as a “micro-look into how grace gets applied to warfare in the Christian life.” I can’t think of a better way to close.
Oppressed with unbelief and sin,
Fightings without, and fears within;
While earth and hell, with force combined,
Assault and terrify my mind:
What strength have I against such foes,
Such hosts and legions to oppose?
Alas! I tremble, faint, and fall;
Lord, save me, or I give up all.
Thus sorely pressed, I sought the Lord,
To give me some sweet cheering word;
Again I sought, and yet again;
I waited long, but not in vain.
Oh! ’twas a cheering word indeed!
Exactly suited to my need;
“Sufficient for thee is my grace,
Thy weakness my great power displays.”
Now I despond and mourn no more,
I welcome all I feared before;
Though weak, I’m strong; though troubled, blessed;
For Christ’s own power shall on me rest.
My grace would soon exhausted be,
But his is boundless as the sea;
Then let me boast, with holy Paul,
That I am nothing, Christ is all.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
1 Corinthians 12:9
I found each of these resources to be rich sources for biblical encouragement on spiritual struggle:
If there be a man before me who says that the wrath of God is too heavy a punishment for his little sin, I ask him, if the sin be little, why does he not give it up. – Charles Spurgeon
I just finished The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David A. Kessler, MD. Besides a inside scoop on the food industry and the marketing of overeating, or its alias in the book,”conditioned hypereating,” Kessler provides in-depth analysis of the biology and neurology of overeating. He details the inexorable links between the flavor stimuli designed to tempt a gluttonous response. Now I know why it’s all I can do to walk past the Cinnabon trailer at the county fair. (Beyond the sensational scent-it has to do with neurochemistry.) And why a “succulent, seared Italian seafood filet” looks and tastes better and even fills you up more than a simple “seafood filet.”
An informative read for sure. My food radar is definitely up as I scan menus and ingredient lists. I am not unaware of the food industry’s schemes! More importantly, I’m tuned in to the mental rehearsal and intentional planning that is essential to maintaining a healthy weight. I know that haphazard eating, without thought to the stimuli-response-habit cycle often result in overeating.
But what impressed me more than anything else in The End Of Overeating, I’m quite sure, was totally unintended by Kessler. Near the end, he examines what “success” in the face of the overeating battle looks like. Here are a few excerpts (bolding and underlining, mine):
…you see that foodhas kept you trapped in a cue-urge-reward-habit cycle. Only then can you accept thatfood rewards are short lived and that their more enduring effect is to sustain your desire to keep eating. That’s when you realize that if you stay trapped, you’ll never eat enough to feel satisfied, and that’s when you’ll stop expecting food to make you feel better. -pp. 234-235
Soon you’re inventing excuses for pursuing reward. “I’m entitled to this…It will cheer me up…I’ve been good this week…I can eat just a little.” In a series of small steps, you put yourself into a position where it becomes easier to access a reward, an internal battle begins (“Should I eat this or not?”), and your determination to say no eventually buckles.
…For others, the greatest challenge comes after reaching their sought-after weight, when they recognize that their struggle will never be completely over and that the battle with conditioned hypereating is lifelong. Accepting those realities helps to keep you vigilant. -pp. 232-233
The slave to sin/hostage to overeating analogy was inescapable. Justifying the “little” sin snack. The internal battle-I do not do what I want, but the very thing I hate.Feeling entitled to “just a little” sinful pleasure. Realizing that sin keeps us trapped by its fleeting “rewards.” Moses lived it for us.
By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the children of God, rather than enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.
Both my dear friend Julia and a committed co-worker have lived this war in the past year. Looking for a greater reward, they demonstrate unceasing vigilance to overcome. Each has lost >80 pounds. Both have confided that they see the battle against overeating will require lifelong vigilance. Their reduced calorie diets, minimal sugar and refined carbs, and self-control are not temporary, but new norms. I’m getting it, too. Behind C. H. Spurgeon, who knew
The reigning power of sin falls dead the moment a man is converted, but the struggling power of sin does not die until the man dies.
With Oswald Chambers, who knew
Life without war is impossible whether in nature or in grace…Health is the balance between physical life and external nature, and it is maintained only by sufficient vitality on the inside against things on the outside.
There’s really only one way out of bondage. In all the tantalizing forms Overeating and her sneaky, spiritual cousin Sin take, defeating them requires embracing at least these two truths:
the short-term pleasures of partaking are just fleeting compared to the eternal reward. Yup, as I inhale the aromatic scent of the Cinnabon, I must think: A moment on the lips, forever on the hips. Delightful going down, but not so much 730 calories later.
that epic victory and real freedom are simply impossible without war. I realize I’ll have to fight the Sinnabon until the day I die! It’ll be easier to resist the more I do, but I’ll probably still be tempted decades down the road.
When the grace of God appears, he teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passion and lead self-controlled upright and godly lives as we await our glorious Hope. In his marvelous, matchless grace, our Lord Jesus promises us even greater rewards when we keep fighting the good fight, with his mighty power- our “sufficient vitality” at work within. Death to the Sinnabon!