Lean times

shepherd There was a popular gospel song in the 1970’s titled “Learning to Lean”. The lyrics of the chorus were as follows:

Learning to lean…..learning to lean…I’m learning to lean on Jesus
Finding more power than I ever dreamed, I’m learning to lean on Jesus.

As a kid, I didn’t have a grand conception of what these lyrics were saying. Lean on Jesus? I imagined sitting on a rock and gazing at a sunset while leaning next to him as he put his arm around me to comfort me, much like a dad would his little boy. To be honest, the song with the catchy chorus didn’t get much deeper than that. It was not in the same league with many of our timeless hymns.

A few decades later, one begins to realize the sheer magnitude of what it actually means to “Lean on Jesus” but with not much help from the phrase itself. Per Merriam-Webster, one definition of “lean” is “to rely for support or inspiration” which really doesn’t cut it. (Frankly, it was difficult to find a definition that doesn’t fall short.) The phrase “lean on Jesus” seems to imply that He is good for that occasional helping hand or good advice, but it doesn’t paint a picture of minute by minute reliance.

That’s just it, lyrics like these say much about us. We don’t like to think of ourselves as helpless sheep. We don’t want to be “made to lie down in green pastures”. We would rather not venture into “the valley of death”.  Instead, we prefer to seek our own pleasures, like Abram’s nephew Lot who, when given the choice, chose to pitch his tent near a wicked city.  We lack the faith of Abram who relied on God enough that he deferred to Lot when it came to parsing land. Abram knew that no matter where his tents were pitched, the Lord was with him. Keep in mind, Abram had not showed himself to be a bastion of faith before. In the previous chapter, Abram was lying about Sarai being his sister instead of his wife simply to save his own skin. The Lord rebuked him the end of Genesis 12  (through the words of the Egyptian Pharoah who he feared) and then the next thing you read is Abram giving Lot first dibs on the land.

Often when hearing this story, we focus on Lot and his decision as if it is the great turning point of the story when in reality it was a turning point for Abram.  In the previous chapter, Abram attempted to control the outcome through lying which was not an exhibition of true reliance on God. It was as if he was saying, “thanks Lord for getting me this far, but I have a better way to secure the inheritance you promised me.” In fact, we discover that it wasn’t Abram’s scheme which saved him, rather it was God who afflicted the house of Pharoah with plagues which caused him to send Abram and Sarai on their way.

The action of God (afflicting Pharoah) was the catalyst to creating faith in Abram and it only takes a few verses into chapter 13 to demonstrate the change in Abram. He witnessed the power of God and by doing so, came to see the futility of his own plans and it resulted in a faith that viewed God’s unseen promises as infinitely more valuable than the prosperity that lay before him.

Was Abram “leaning on God”? Sure, if leaning means total reliance. His relationship with God throughout the Genesis narrative isn’t one of shared sunsets and fatherly advice to a son. It is one rooted in God’s promises and his sovereign actions to make those promises come to pass. In spite of Abram’s weaknessess and moral failures, he truly learned what it meant to lean on God. Likewise, we must come to see the futility of our ways and wait on God to act. Remember, as the Psalmist wrote, God is the one who restores the soul and He will lead us to the path of righteousness for his namesake. Ultimately, that’s what his promises are for, the sake of His name and the eventual peace and rest of his people.

 

 

 

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.