In the Valley of the Shadow of Death

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broken-pot

As a Christian, there are seasons where you feel as though you are doing well all things considered and by that, I mean there are times when you feel that despite being a depraved sinner in need of God’s grace, when, if we’re honest, we feel that we are doing pretty well as a Christian and so well that we even know that we should be “humbly” apologetic when it comes to speaking about our spiritual growth in the faith with others. Then, there are seasons when you almost wonder, what happened? Where did those good times go?

We don’t realize we are slipping in our faith and struggling often until it is too late and we are left in the wake of the shadow of death that is sin and wondering where it was we went wrong to begin with. It is in this place that I feel many Christians struggle, if we’re honest. We know in our head who we are by faith in Jesus Christ and maybe we even go back and remind ourselves of passages such as Romans 8 or Ephesians 2, but in our heart we feel at times as though we are stuck back in the same mess of sin that we felt perhaps that with just enough good seasons of our faith that our sin struggles will simply disappear, be no more, or that it will get substantially easier to fight sin in our lives. However, reality sets in when we find ourselves back in that place we perhaps prayed about before and now find ourselves in again. The struggle is real, but we’ve simply become better at hiding it’s devastating effects on our lives and the lives of those around us… at least, for awhile. Eventually, the struggle will catch up to us to the point where we no longer can fool those around us or even ourselves, but by that time it will be too late as we’re not simply in the shadow of death anymore but we’ve plunged headlong into that valley and buried ourselves in it.

We all still struggle with sin as Christians. The difference is that we know our weakness as it has been confessed and our need for a Savior whom we can run to for more grace, and we have God’s presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit to make God’s Word alive in us and help sanctify us. Sanctification is one of those words that many grasp in the head but perhaps have not taken to heart. The Puritans referred to sanctification as having two aspects: 1) Mortification, and 2) Vivification. Mortification is the process of the killing sin in your life empowered by the Holy Spirit while vivification is the process of being made alive in Christ.

Sometimes people drop one aspect of the sanctification process. You drop mortification and then you have a made alive in Christ focus which is a wonderful place to be in but doesn’t account for our being sinners in need of grace and totally depraved. It simply focuses on the good aspects of what the Spirit does in the heart and life of man to make him (or her) more Christ-like and bearing a renewed image of God to the world. When you focus on all the good aspects and none of the less than pleasant aspects though, you find yourself jaded by putting on a facade of good Christian faith to everyone around you all the time when in reality things are not nearly as good or you’ve gone beyond that point whether sooner or later and simply broken down from working so hard to be good and failing that you’ve come to the point of maybe questioning whether you are a normal Christian with your real struggles with sin or maybe whether you are even a Christian at all.

Sometimes people drop the vivification aspect of sanctification and when this happens which I believe is often common in more strict Reformed communities, a strong focus on depravity and being a sinner in need of grace becomes the emphasis as well as striving to kill sin in the life of the Christian. Hence, the oft quoted John Owen, “Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it while you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Or there is the more contemporary version in Darrin Patrick’s quote, “If you don’t know how dirty you are, you won’t see the need for a bath.” It is important to know sin and recognize yourself as a sinner and utterly depraved, incapable of saving yourself by your efforts and completely in need of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. It is also important that you realize that to be a Christian means a life lived striving to kill sin in your life because indeed, it is a battle and you will have scars. However, it is equally important that you not only seek to mortify but to look to the vivify aspect of sanctification as well which means living to righteousness. For it is not enough to strive to know sin in your life and kill it, indeed, it is impossible, without looking to the only One who can save you from it’s deadly grasp.

I believe many Christians find themselves here, emphasizing mortification but failing to remember to look to the cross of Christ for more grace. Jesus said that all who look upon the Son of God with eyes of faith will be saved from death equating the look with the time that Moses was instructed to make a staff with a bronze serpent so that all who would look at the staff would be saved from the sting of death from real serpents below. Many of us look up but yet we do not always see and because we fail to know that we do not see as well as we think we do we fail to see the serpents nipping at our heals and more than this we fail to see the grace before our eyes when it is offered us. Sure, we have tasted and seen that the Lord is indeed good initially, but our response to problems and struggles in our lives as we carry on as a Christian is not necessarily to look to Christ but to other things or to focus on the pain and struggle. In the thick of our battles, we fail to acknowledge that perhaps we have a one-sided view of sanctification but in reality, more often than not we are failing to kill sin in our lives or we are failing to look with eyes of faith at our Savior and we stare at the death that engulfs us as though we have the power to overcome it on our own or become afraid at what we see because we have forgotten the great truths of our faith which are that we have nothing to fear, we need only look to Christ for all the strength we need, and that we are not alone to rough it out but we have God with us because we have become sons and daughters of the living God, chosen and adopted by grace through faith in Jesus Christ to be heirs with Him and are now strangers and sojourners in a world that is not our own.

I am trying to say that there are times that we as Christians feel vulnerable, desperate, and broken by the world around us, but we fail to remember that it is such as this that God calls to Himself. For God does not care for our religiousness and how Christian we can act, but rather our broken, fragile little hearts.

Psalm 51:17

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

God desires our brokenness so that He may fill the empty vessels of our hearts and lives with the everlasting and eternal and infinite and all-satisfying fullness that is Himself. Let that sink in for a moment.

So as we go about the Christian life of sanctification we should rightly strive to kill sin in our lives but we should not merely end there, by all means, we should pursue Christ in our lives and that is the pursuit of infinite, everlasting joy. The sin is merely the excess weight and injuries that slow us down, the shackles and chains, as we run the race toward Christ, but they are not the goal and race itself or “the journey” as our postmodern world so often likes to term it is not the goal for the Christian and indeed the destination of that ‘new heavens and new earth’ are not the goal, but rather Christ is the goal so that our lives would echo the words of the All Sons & Daughters song, “Above and below me, before and behind me, in every eye that sees me, Christ be all around me.” The ‘new heavens and the new earth’ are for the Christian not so much a place for which one awaits the bus to arrive while sitting on the bench with the ticket being our faith in Christ, but rather in obedience to Christ’s commands to love Him and others and make disciples the Christian is to strive to bring Heaven to earth so that the church on earth is to be an outpost of love and grace in the world until Christ returns to bring that which is begun to completion. The new heaven and earth are important for the Christian, but it is to Christ the Christian must look for sanctification while reminding him/herself of the history of redemption of what God has done and what God has promised to do along with what God is doing presently.

Hope of what is to come is fueled by the “curriculum vitae” of what God has done in relation to His people already so that the Christian may live in that awkward present tension of a place with eyes and heart and mind and all being pursuing Christ which entails loving others and killing sin more in that race of faith along the way.

In the shadow of my own frustration with my foolish stumbling into sin and desperate, near Davidic Psalm 51 cry to God for more grace, I was playing the Lecrae album Rebel and among other songs heard this song Breathin’ to Death which made me think of myself but also became a source for the initial thinking that birthed this post. The words, whether you listen to Christian hip-hop or not, are raw and I believe resonate with all Christians who find themselves saved by grace through faith in Christ, yet, still struggle with sin and get frustrated with themselves. So, before this post comes to an end, do yourself a favor and read these lyrics or listen to the song or both for a moment…

Breathin’ to Death 

by Lecrae*

“It’s like I’m tired of life
Lord I’m wrong, why I can’t get right?
And when it’s dark, why it can’t get light?
Why it can’t be light?
It’s so heavy, why my sin won’t let me see the end?
Come get me!
Please come get me!
My thoughts, my mind, my ways all evil
I’m s’posed to be Your people, I’m s’posed to see Your sequel
I said I’d never leave You
But I’m so left, I ain’t right
Lord, I’m sleeping with death
Man, I’m cheating with death
Am I deaf? It’s like I don’t hear You
I say that I’m a Christian, but it’s like I don’t fear You
I’m on a selfish island and I am nowhere near You
God, I really need You even though I don’t appear to
I’m drinking out a broken cistern that could never hold water and I’m gonna get burned
Though I try, I never satisfy to quench this yearn
I hear You calling, but it’s like a fight for me to just turn
Lord, I deserve to burn

I’m feeling schizophrenic,
Maybe I ain’t saved, ’cause I gotta get high just to block out all the pain
Seen death, seen hurt, seen a whole lot of things
But instead of running from it I’m running away from change
It’s like I’m outside in the ice cold weather
The rain’s coming down, I keep getting wetter
I know I’m getting sick and I could die any second
But still I refuse to let Your truths make me better
I’d rather eat flies and maggots instead of bread
And it’s killing me slow, but I can’t get it through my head
You were stabbed, You were murdered
And for me is why You bled
But I spit on your bloody face as if I never cared
Lord, how dare I compare my pain?
Your father turned his back
And You were left to hang
I don’t know why You did it, that I can’t explain
How can You love this sinner who’s desecrated your name?
Lord, I deserve the flames

I know I tell lies
I know I do dirt
Apart from You, I’m nothing, but You can give me worth
I don’t know if I know You
But still I know I should
I know these days are evil and only You are good
I’ve come to this conclusion that I would like to change ’cause all the world’s money and fame cannot sustain
I know that I should turn but that’s the hardest thing
Cause do I really feel that having Jesus is a gain?
The world is so tempting
Satan is a beast
He hypnotizes my eyes to say the least
But Jesus be my treasure! To know You is to live
And I am here dying, trying everything there is
All I need here is You
Help me turn ‘way from sin
Lord, give me grace to turn away and the fear to not give in
I know that I’m not perfect but I could rest in Him
I know I don’t deserve it but still I take your hand
Lord, let me take Your hand

Help me Lord before there’s no time left
I ain’t living I’m just breathing to death [echo]
Your ways are perfect and they lead me to rest
Mine are evil and they lead me to death.”

*“Breathin’ to Death” by Lecrae lyrics from azlyrics.com

So, how is your theology of sanctification doing? Further, how is your heart? Are you dropping one aspect of sanctification and focusing on mortification or vivification? Take some time now to spend in prayer with God and reflect on your heart, your typical behavior when sin comes your way, and on the beauty and glory of Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God Almighty that He has given so costly and great a gift as His Son on account of broken vessels such as ourselves and ask Him to fill your emptiness and brokenness with more of Himself…

Amen.

 

Working Out for the Glory of God

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“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God…”  

1 Corinthians 10:31

The Apostle Paul was addressing the question in Corinth about whether Jewish Christians should eat food that Gentiles offer them and which isn’t customary for Jews to eat or drink. His response was that apart from food sacrificed to idols to eat and drink with a clean conscience whatever is set before them in order that those they are dining at table with might come to faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and in this, that God might be glorified. The principle of doing all to the glory of God still stands for all believers even outside of Jew and Gentile relations. We might sign off on this and agree to it, but I think it is important that we don’t simply leave such a principle and verse back in the first century but bring it to the present-day. We do this by asking the question, what does it look like to do all to the glory of God? Such a vast, sweeping question can cover too much in a statement though, so to narrow the question one might pick apart aspects of our lives today and ask, what does it look like to do X to the glory of God?

It is in line with this question that I have come to the subject of workout out, exercise. I have not written as much as I used to write for this blog in part because so much has been happening ministry-wise that I have been preoccupied, but also because I have made an intentional lifestyle change to workout more regularly earlier this year and have taken up the sport of surfing as well. Now, in working out and asking the question what does it mean to workout for the glory of God, one might think such a question is being too critical of life and too nit-picky about how to live a Christian life. However, if you believe in the sovereignty of God over all things and you seek to have a Christian worldview, than all of life is affected by your faith, not just compartments. If God is truly God, than all we are and all we do is affected by that reality. If we believe in God, than all we are and all we do is in relation to God without exception unless our statements of belief do not match our lifestyles making us to be hypocrites. Indeed, growing as a disciple is not simply going and baptizing, but rather it is about learning to observe all that Jesus has said and commanded, studying and knowing God’s Word, but also applying it to our lives and helping others to do the same. This application means analyzing our lives under the microscope of Scripture within the realm of a healthy relationship with God in Jesus Christ in order to prayerfully grow in one’s faith as a disciple by learning how to live differently in the world in which we live. It is along those lines that I do not think it too nit-picky or overly-critical to ask how one might workout to the glory of God.

Now, let’s begin to answer this question by looking at the typical gym…

You walk into a gym and what do you see? You see a floor, walls, machines, and weights and nothing more, correct? No! If you are guy, you see often beautiful women who are in shape working out in minimal clothing. If you are a girl, you ignore the guys but also see many guys in great shape showing off and flexing their muscles in the mirror in between their dumbbell sets (if those even exist, I think some guys just stand there and look at themselves). If you are a guy, you see other guys working out and sometimes when a pretty girl comes near there is almost an unstated competition to look the most impressive. Guys try to impress other guys. Girls try to impress other girls. Guys try to get the attention of girls. Girls get the attention of guys. The gym, in this way, is practically a reality tv show mixed with a soap opera. People are working out, but there is really a lot going on in addition to working out. There are average joes just trying to get into shape. There are people who appear to be regulars at the gym who are in good shape. Then, there are the real fanatics at the gym who appear as though they are auditioning for Mr or Mrs Olympia or World’s Strongest Man/Woman.

The approval of others and people-pleasing is a great idol among many today. By idol, I don’t mean some brass or gold totem or statues, but rather something that competes with or replaces the affections that ought to be given God to something or someone else. Tim Keller often describes an idol (Read: Counterfeit Gods) as making a good thing into an ultimate thing. Food can be good, but as an ultimate it can become a form of worship and thus idolatry. Same goes for approval of others and people-pleasing, except this is not even good in and of itself to begin with, this is a competing affection in the heart of man that ought to be directed toward God. However, rather than care what God thinks one cares more about what other people think and how they view you. This plays out as a person begins to allow how they perceive other people viewing them to control how they live their lives, how they act, what they say, and what they do. All this reveals they aren’t worshipping God, but are worshipping the approval of others which has become and made an idol of the heart. I make mention of this because this is very present at the gym. So many people care about how they look in front of others, whether girls or guys. Self-image, is all over the place at the gym.

gym competition

Now, as a Christian seeking to do all to the glory of God, what does it look like to workout? It means, in part, that you don’t care about the approval of others and aren’t focusing on how others view you. Not focusing on the guys or the girls can be difficult, but focusing on simply working out is part of what it means to glorify God at the gym. This means you aren’t trying to impress people with how much you can lift, or how ripped your abs are, or how massive your biceps are, or how great you look in yoga pants, but you simply workout. This doesn’t mean you are apathetic to others, but rather respectful of other people working out and maybe even helpful when necessary. Quietly getting into better shape and maintaining the body that God has blessed you with is a way to boast not in yourself, but in God at the gym.

Another issue at the gym and with working out in general is that it can be a consuming thing that becomes the pinnacle and focus of one’s life. In this way, it can be idolatry, but it doesn’t have to be. Working out and getting into good shape, maintaining our bodies is a good thing. However, allowing self-image or working out excessively to the point of not spending time with God, family, friends, or even detracting from work it unhealthy. Becoming a gym fanatic and obsessing over your weight and image is unhealthy, whether you are in shape or not, it is not a good thing. I have had to be careful myself to workout and to enjoy getting into better shape, but to not allow my fitness to become the focus of my life but to remain focused on Christ. This is much easier said than done. You workout a few times and then a few weeks and then a few months and not only do you feel better but people begin to notice that you look better, then there is this desire to keep those pleasing compliments flowing by getting into even better shape until suddenly, you are living for the approval of others and your life is consumed by workout out rather than enriched by it. There is a difference.

gym workout

Working out is important to living a healthy life, but it is not solely the requirement for living a healthy life. Eating well, sleeping well, working, resting, time with family, time with friends, time with God are all important as is working out. It is important to find some balance to how you workout and to regularly ask yourself, what does it mean for me to workout for the glory of God? Am I caring too much about the approval of others? Is working out a good thing that enriches my life or is working out an ultimate thing that consumes my life?

There are undoubtedly some other things to think about in regards to the subject of how one might workout to the glory of God that I have not covered as I have only scratched the surface. If you think of more ways, please make note of them in the comments below. Thanks for reading and keep working out but remember to pursue Christ above all things in your life.