The Hand

I remember an old song from my childhood that implored its listeners to “put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the waters.” It wasn’t thought of as being theologically rich in content, then or now, but it’s not a bad place to find one’s self. There’s nothing wrong with an image of clinging to the Savior amid life’s tempestuous seas, but there’s another way to think about the hand of God. Proverbs 21:1 is especially hopeful in the crashing waves of our political climate. Solomon’s God-bestowed wisdom emboldens those who trust in these words. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.”

So even though we live in an increasingly godless nation where its citizens promote godless men and women and which threatens to drive us further into the abyss, our faith is strengthened by this truth. We are confident that no matter who is elected to the highest office, that God has ordained it to be, and that he will be glorified in it though now it seems preposterous. And if he turns the hearts of kings and presidents, he is sure to do the same for us. Like the rest of the song says, “take a look at yourself and you can look at others differently”. Resting in the hand of God not only gives us a vision of His sovereignty, but also a reflection of how little control we have.

Godzilla in the garden

 

When we moved into our house over a year ago, we noticed this big green, ivy-like bush growing in the corner of the back yard.  Consultations with green thumbs yielded no answers as to which species it was. Once we determined its uselessness, we decided to eradicate it in order to clear space for more pleasant landscape possibilities. So, we had our lawn guy come out and chop it down after which he recommended that we poison the root of this green monster that was sure to come back. So for several months, we initiated a cycle of Round-Up squirts aimed at the leafy shoots which arose from every square inch of the area where the bush resided. Once poisoned, the shoots would begin to wilt and die followed by a good mowing over by our lawn guy.  But funny thing, new vines would pop up again and again followed by more Round-Up and mowing. No matter how much weed killer we squirted and how often we mowed, new leaves would continue popping up in different spots. Finally, I contacted a landscape friend of mine and told him our problem with killing this menace.  He recommended a more powerful solution… a broad leaf weed killer! Now as you probably have deduced, yard maintenance is not one of my gifts, which is why I hire a guy to do it.  After applying the new poison, I began to see results immediately, and after a few applications, I can happily say, our Godzilla has left the premises!

Likewise, as believers in Christ, we must deal with ugly bushes that crowd the landscape of our souls. The apostle Paul calls this “indwelling sin” and like my backyard ivy, it needs to be put to death to allow beauty to flourish. (Col 3:5). The theological term for this process is called mortification. To mortify means to put to death.

Often we neglect this necessary discipline due to an incomplete view of salvation. Perhaps our evangelical traditions have trained us to think this way by reducing salvation to a decision we made once (or twice) as opposed to the lengthy process that it is.  Indeed, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus we are declared righteous in God’s sight. Like the prodigal son, our filthy selves have been embraced by a loving Father, and we’ve been clothed in a fine robe and celebrated as His son. So, our identities, our standing, and our future have been secured by this atonement. Though our justification is immediate, however, we are still in the process of being saved. You see, though we have made the identity switch from rebel to son, sin still resides in us. Paul writes in Colossians 3 that this righteousness with all its benefits, especially that of knowing Christ, has not been attained or realized, yet is “the prize” that he is striving for.  He encourages us to “press on” even though he knows that we have a dim view of what this will eventually look like (1 Cor. 13:12).

In John Owen’s classic work, “The Mortification of Sin”, he reminds us that “sin doth not only still abide in us, but is acting, still laboring to bring forth the deeds of the flesh” and “in every moral action it is always either inclining to evil, or hindering from that which is good”. Owen knows Paul’s teaching well about the need to kill sin and goes on to write “He that stands still and suffers his enemies to double blows upon him without resistance, will undoubtedly be conquered in the issue.” All this can be summed up in Owen’s well known quote “be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”

Now, it’s easy to see this idea of killing one’s sin as yet another religious activity or behavior modification we have to keep up with. Indeed, our sin nature beckons us to improve ourselves externally, but this is motivated by receiving the approval of others or even the approval of God and not by the desire to truly know Christ.  The apostle Paul should know. His life as a Pharisee was fueled by his religious pursuits and in his bitterness and hatred he sought to kill and persecute those who followed Christ. But one day, he was knocked off his donkey by the very presence of Christ and converted and it is through his pastoral writings that he encourages the churches he founded, as well as the ones we are a part of, to be disciples of Christ in a continuing effort to truly know Christ. The catch phrase of the past century most familiar to those of us with an evangelical background is to “accept Jesus as your personal Savior”, yet Paul is saying that to truly know Jesus personally is to die to self and kill the deeds of the flesh every day.

When John Owen admonishes us to “kill sin or it will kill us”, he is saying that our natural bent toward sin moves us farther from Christ and kills our relationship with Him.  Therefore, knowing Him intimately and deeply IS our life and the very reason we were created for.

Just like the bush in my backyard, sin must be diligently fought against daily, but to fight is not merely mowing over it and spraying weak poisons on the shoots that pop up. This will not address the root itself and this brings us to the most important thing to remember when talking about killing sin. We should never forget where the power to do this comes from. Owen reminds us where the power does NOT come from when he writes, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religions in the world.” In other words, we can’t do this work from our sin nature because our sin nature only desires to be glorified in this work, thus echoing Paul’s words of “not of works, lest any man should boast”. (Rom. 6:33)

So, if we’re called to this discipline of mortifying our sin, yet we are unable to achieve this with our own pragmatism, then where does the power to kill sin come from? Back to Owens once more. “All other ways of mortification are vain, all helps leave us helpless; it must be done by the Spirit.”  He points us back to Paul in Romans 8 10But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”

This work of killing our sin ultimately is not ours. It’s not the white-knuckles of weed-chopping; it’s the effective “poison” applied by the Holy Spirit who ravages the root of our sin by daily pointing our hearts to the scarred hands of a resurrected Christ.  We not only trust in this power for the perfect garden of the life hereafter, but for the landscape of our souls here and now.

Incremental

A week ago, years of procrastination came to a head as I finally gave in (or caved in) to the advice of 3 dentists over a 25 year period who assured me that it would be best to have my wisdom teeth extracted.

According to the experts, it was in my best interest to have a man with sharp instruments invade the soft tissue of my gums and cut through bone that had grown over impacted molars in order to avert “problems” in the future. What was described to me as a procedure on friday and back to work on monday routine, became a week long (and counting) relentless pain that has resulted in sleepless nights, multiple missed days at work, and round the clock medicating which itself seems to fall short in its design to numb the throbbing effectively. In spite of having a Florence Nightingale of a wife who was there at every turn, I have not been a beacon of joy this week. I have pushed the boundaries of anyone’s patience for sure.

Healing is coming incrementally but sure. In fact, I hate the word incremental when I come to think of it,because it implies slow and plodding. In fact, It’s hard to imagine  a scenario where incremental is a positive adjective. Positives like pay increases, weight loss, Disney trip countdowns are incremental, while layoffs, car wrecks, and general bad news seem to occur in an unexpected instant. Do you know what else is incremental? Learning and sanctification, which I would make a case are two words almost identical in meaning. What I’ve learned at age 48, where I have endured little pain compared to someone who was born with a debilitating disease from birth, is a difference of infinite increments. And though I’ve been down for the count this week, there are others I know who have been down for years and decades from a physical standpoint.

There is much to be learned with the advent of extended pain, and it’s not just about Dick Van Dyke show binge-watching. Pain has taught me much in a short time. Here are a few things.

1. I’m unsympathetic. – Too often, there is pain all around me with friends and family that has left me unfazed. I haven’t in the words of Bill Clinton, “felt their pain”.

2. My stomach is my god – When you have oral surgery, you miss out on the foods you love and your diet becomes a steady stream of soup, oatmeal, and pudding. Paul wrote in Phillipians 3:19 “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” But in the verse preceding, he classifies these belly worshipers as “enemies of the cross of Christ.” The cross of Christ is all about suffering and pain, and when I set my mind on earthly things, like Tex-mex, I devalue the cross and everything it has accomplished for me.

3. I don’t know much. – Yeah, I can quote scripture I learned when I was five, and I can discuss deep theological subjects, and yet as I learned this week, I don’t know anything really. My throbbing gums are miniscule compared to one lash of a whip across the Lord’s back. I really don’t know the Lord I profess to serve all that much because of the next thing I’ve learned.

4. I’m entitled –  This week I’ve tried to blame everything for my pain including the entire dental industry which deems it best to disturb the peaceful rest of impacted molars. I’ve blamed the pharmaceutical industry for not creating a suitable alternative to ibuprofen (which I’m allergic to). I’ve yet to blame myself for not having the procedure done when i was in my early twenties where by most accounts, the recovery would be much sooner (not to mention I wasn’t allergic to anti-inflammatories back then). The blame game only serves to reveal the entitlement of the heart. And if you believe that God is sovereign over all as I do, then I essentially shake my fist at Him and blame him. “Who are you Oh Sovereign, that I should suffer like this for 6 days!?”

5. I haven’t seen glory –  Paul described his present sufferings, which were far greater and longer than a controlled oral surgery, as nothing to be compared to the glory which will be revealed. God gave Paul enough glimpse of His glory, that he was able to endure great pain, suffering, and persecution for the cause of Christ. His life’s anthem was “to live is Christ, to die is gain”. Me? I have either never seen this great glory, or I haven’t been awakened to it at the level of Paul.

6. To truly follow Christ is to share in his sufferings.- Paul went on to say

“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

 

It’s simple really. To get to Christ, we are going to have to follow him which means the path he has forged. His path was suffering and death. Sure, it doesnt mean our suffering and death will be as great, but the only way to truly know the power of the resurrection, truly know it, is to die. And the  mile markers that lead to death are the increments of pain and suffering.

One day, those of us who are in Christ, will truly say that none of this compares to the Glory that we will see and experience when we finally get to Christ, when we finally get Christ.

As Paul reminds us, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

Every pain from stubbing your toe to dying from cancer, whether physical or emotional

is an incremental removal of the veil that blinds us to His Glory. It is but a loose thread in the fabric of santification that he has woven according to His great counsel. A loose thread he mercifully pulls, one increment at a time.