The Struggle Under Grace

So we find that in human experience we have a problem in that the idea of moral and desirable good are split – we are often wanting what we know is wrong, and rather despise what is right. It is almost laughable to say that you love the moral way of living. In fact, a lot of movies show a kind of ‘coming out’ moment when the protagonist casts off the fear of traditional ideas of the good and embraces their true desire, their true self. This is not a recent thing, not a political thing, not an American problem; it is not a part of some kind of culture war. It is universal and true for all of humanity, from Eve and the serpent on. God is working to bring us back to a place where what we honestly want coincides with what is right. We misinterpret this to mean that God wants to impose right behavior on us against our desire, thinking that morals trump desire for God. Actually, desire always trumps morals, and grace aims to restore desire to acceptable ends.

I want to expand on something I only hinted at in the last chapter. If this is so, if the gracious work of God rescues our desire from the forbidden, if its aim is to restore this division between the moral good and the aesthetic good, then why am I still struggling? Surely I’m missing something, I’ve gone too far with this idea. It can’t be right! What about these kinds of verses, you can’t just throw them out:

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” Matthew 16:24, NASB.
“For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” Galatians 5:17, NASB.

This fairly well disproves my point doesn’t it? Righteousness, holiness, godliness, is not about getting what you want, it is about DENYING yourself what you want! Perhaps, but perhaps we should look at these passages a little closer.

Jesus says, “if anyone WISHES to come after me.” We have a wish, a desire, to come after Jesus. In context, there has just been another debacle with the pharisees, but Jesus has taken the disciples off by themselves, and has asked them, “who do people say that I am?” Then He says, who do YOU say that I am, and Peter says, “the Christ.” It is at this time, this first time, that He begins to explain that He will die and be resurrected. Peter is alarmed, and takes Jesus aside to rebuke Him. This is the context – Peter, the one who first proclaimed Him to be the Christ, the Son of God, rebukes Jesus about all of this talk about suffering many things and dying. Jesus is replying to this.

What does He say? He says, you want me to stop talking about suffering and dying? Actually, not only will I suffer, but all who wish to follow me will suffer. You have found this great treasure – the Messiah, the son of God, has come! You wish to follow. You must go and sell all you have to get this treasure – but you don’t know how much you must sell, just as you do not know the extent of the incredible value of the treasure you have stumbled upon. You must sell your very self, deny your very self, if you wish to obtain this great thing. I am going to suffer, and if you follow Me, you will have to learn this. The writer of Hebrews put this all in perspective:

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” Hebrews 12:2, 3, NIV.

He did it for the joy set before Him, a joy which was not taken away. The point of all of this isn’t suffering, it isn’t the cross itself, it is the passage to joy. It is the same formula as the parable of the hidden treasure – sacrifice is made “from joy over it.” The desire is engaged, is unified, and leads us to sacrifice. There is joy over it, but there is the selling of all, the sacrifice of once cherished things. This cannot be minimized; however, if there is not treasure, if there is not joy, if the focus is rather on the sacrifice, there is only the death of true desire. Sacrifice becomes punishment and ugliness, rather than a liberating passage into fulfillment. It is paramount that we keep out eyes on the prize, it is ALL-IMPORTANT.

This mindset plays itself out in everything we do. For instance, when we seek to help “the poor’, if we do it from a place of mere obedience, we do it only from sacrifice. This is dishonoring to the very people we help, because we do not see them as the pearl God desires, but as objects of burden. Since we essentially see them as “the poor’ instead of as real people, as objects of ministry instead of objects of real treasure, we operate from a place of martyrdom and have little joy in the process. This is unsustainable and has little benefit to the kingdom. Just as Jesus saw through the disciples current state in life and envisioned them each as someone far greater, even so all of our ministry and efforts must be born from a vision of hope and joy for them. In all our ministry and relationship, we must search the appearance of the empty field of the person and see the treasure there, and then the sacrifice we make for them will be from joy. This is the kind of cross that Jesus bore and that Jesus asks us to bear, a cross which is a passage to some great desire. We are most certainly to take up our cross, but we are to follow His pattern – we do it because we have found treasure and we would gladly give up every smaller concern for this great desire.

The Two Selves
Despite all of this, we all know that there remains a struggle with errant desire. There is no use beating around the bush, we still love sin. No clever reasoning or poetic and beautiful writing can cover or change this fact. Paul is quite open and clear about the fact, he deals with it extensively throughout all of his writings. In all of his writings the idea is constantly present, that when we come into Christ, we become a new creature; a new identity, a new person is born, and that we struggle against our old self:

“Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17, NASB.

I hope that as you read this, you can read with fresh eyes. This is a crazy and revolutionary idea, and quite a twist on the idea of being “born again.’ When we become Christians, we are a NEW CREATURE. There is some part of us that didn’t used to be there, which is different, which is actually new. We have a new self, a self which loves good, a self in which the desire for good is united with virtue. Instead of just cleaning up what is there, God bulldozes it and rebuilds. This new self is based on and integrated somehow with our identity, our central personhood, but it is new and different self, undivided about desire and virtue.

In Romans 6, he speaks of our old self, the “fleshly’ self, as having been killed off, crucified with Christ:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?” Romans 6:1-3, NASB.

Notice that he is not saying that we should TRY to die to sin, or that we are obligated to die to sin. He says it is a done deal, we HAVE died to sin. However, in Romans 6 and 7, he goes on to talk about this old sinful fleshly self as a kind of zombie living dead presence:

“For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish. But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.” Romans 7:19, 20, NASB.

We may be crucified with Christ, baptized into His death, but the old self, the fleshly self which has been ultimately dethroned, continues to lurk around and have its influence. How does this work?

Some older churches have bell towers, in which there is a long rope attached to a simple mechanism that rings the bell when you pull it. For large bells, you pull the rope in a kind of rhythm and get the bell swinging up there until it starts to ring. It will ring for a while until its momentum subsides, and then it quiets back down. I think that our old self, our fleshly self, is like that. It may have been crucified, but we have been living under its influence literally for our entire existence. We have lived since our earliest memories by pulling that rope, we are very familiar with the sound of that bell ringing. Once the old self is dethroned by the new self, it is like we stop pulling that rope. The bell will keep ringing for a while, but soon enough it will stop. The sound of that is like the sound of the white noise of an air conditioner when it goes off. You don’t realize the clamor it is making until suddenly it is strangely quiet. We are used to being fleshly. We are used to having morals imposed upon us, we are used to having our wild and immoral desires squelched. We are used to being frightened of our own inner dynamics, our own disrespectful inner desires. We are accustomed to this turmoil. We are babies, aliens almost, to the idea that there is a real part of ourselves that actually wants to do right. We are out of touch with it.

Paul is saying, stop pulling that rope, stop ringing that bell, it is not who you really are any more. Let’s be clear, the dynamic of life under the old self is very familiar. It isn’t just that the flesh wants to sin. It is that the flesh wants to sin, and the same flesh is used to living under a moral constraint that thwarts the desire. The mind set on the flesh brings both of these things into play: desire for the forbidden and trust in the warm blanket of moral constraints that tell it “NO!” When we start to think about releasing the desire and trusting our new self to behave virtuously under that desire, we feel very unsafe. It is a new self, an untried self, a self which we have not learned to live with. We are used to the noisy clamor of sinful desire and having morals and principles stamp those desires out. We think that is what life IS. We’re afraid to trust the work of God, that we might really have a new self that loves virtue and can operate from undivided desire.

In Christ, there really is a new self. As we grow in Christ, our mind, our patterns of thought and habits of living, come more and more into harmony with the way the new self operates. We begin to learn to trust its desire for virtue. We begin to warm up to the idea of freedom, the feeling of desire which is unleashed and ends up doing good. We begin to trust that yes, God has actually done a real work, I actually am a new creature. We start to believe that we can love what is right. At first, we don’t understand it, we don’t quite believe it. Let’s face it, it is very rarely taught, and much of the modern church’s teachings appeal to the old fleshly self and the need to put a leash on the old dog. The truth is, through simple belief in Christ, we do become new creatures, and the struggle is to stop ringing the bell of the old self, and to begin to trust the new self to guide our mind. The struggle is to set our minds on the things of the spirit, and not on the flesh. This is a very different struggle than the struggle to impose law on the fleshly desire for the forbidden.

I am going to be a bit frank about this now. Very few Christians, especially Christian leaders, seem to have read or considered the essential doctrines spelled out by Paul in Romans 6 through 8 and all the rest of Paul’s writings. However, these same people are very clear that in subtle or bold ways, they do not believe the new self is real, or is capable of winning at virtue. Because there is no real belief in grace, in true forgiveness, there is no freedom as in Romans 7 and 8, to fail because the bell still rings. It is seldom taught that as a Christian, desire can lead you to righteous acts. All of this really strengthens the old self, empowers the old dynamic. It says, go back and ring the old bell, arouse those old desires and then impose moral standards on them to squelch them. Don’t commit adultery, adultery, adultery! Remember and avoid the glories of sin! Sin is awesome and powerful – don’t do it! Week after week after week, the message is, “be a living zombie, a whitewashed tomb, this is the Christian way, this is bearing your cross.” This is why it is so strange to say that the “gospel” is supposed to be good news. It isn’t good news because it isn’t the gospel. You can feel the awkward tension when an invitation is tacked on to the end of a sermon and very few (if any) respond. It is not good news, it is bad news. Anyone with a shred of intelligence will run screaming out of the building before they will submit to such insanity. The whole message is often completely devoid of grace and trust in the virtue of the new self, and the whole sermon has enthroned the old self so it can be squelched by some “Christian principle.’ This is all, ultimately, just warmed over death.

Well, what should we be preaching about? What should we believe? What should we be saying? If you are a preacher, consider how fearful you are to rethink your message this way! You can’t just preach free love!!! I say, preach truth, preach strong grace. Jesus preached repentance in a way that caused crowds of sinners to flock to Him. Prostitutes followed Him like a puppy dog, and wept and wiped His feet with their grateful tears. Obviously, they felt welcomed and loved by Him, not condemned. To Him, sin is a disease that needs treatment by a doctor, and virtue is not an obligation to be forcefully imposed upon the unwilling. Do you think you are right because of the paltry few conversions in your midst? Preaching to the flesh, preaching in order to squelch the desire of the flesh, preaching the comforting message of principles which address surface behaviors, is not producing real results is it? Paul preached a message of incredibly scandalous grace, Martin Luther came around to it again, and when it is preached, it changes history. You are not smarter than Paul, nor are you more fruitful. Go back and search these scriptures, and preach grace. Tell people that God tremendously loves them. Tell them clearly that Christ’s blood is enough to abundantly forgive them. Tell them this over and over and over, 70 times 7. Lead them to a unified desire for virtue. Encourage them to learn to trust the desire of their new self. Figure out and teach what it means to have a mind set on the Spirit. Don’t sit there and pretend you already do this if you don’t. If you repent of anything, repent of this! You are torturing people with your preaching. Ring a new bell, a bell of love and grace and freedom and newness. The weeping sinners will flock to you, I just know it.

Posted in Book: Scandal of Grace, Scandalous Grace and tagged .

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