Tag Archives: sin

The Tragedy of Sluggishness

 

The third, and arguably most significant warning of the Book of Hebrews, is framed by two exhortations against the malady of sluggishness.  The same Greek word, translated as “dull” [of hearing] in Hebrews 5:11 ESV and as “sluggish” in Hebrews 6:12 ESV, forms an inclusio  or brackets for this  central warning against apostasy.

Prior to this passage, the previous two warnings guard against neglect (Hebrews 2:3) and falling away due to an unbelieving or hardened heart (Hebrews 3:12-13), but the chief concern of the author’s warnings does not become fully expressed until now.  Here, within this inclusio, the danger is clear: sluggishness in the Christian life is not only inconsistent with a true profession of faith, but it is spiritually deadly.

Contextually, the first bracket use of sluggish – translated dull [of hearing] – concerns the author’s desire to introduce the concept of Christ as High Priest, after the order of Melchizedek.  Because of their sluggish ears, with which the preacher is intimately familiar, they are unable to bear with, or we might say properly digest, this grand topic of Christ’s priesthood.  As the introduction to this warning unfolds, we find that a person’s ability to grasp and  comprehend the truth’s of God’s Word is intimately related to holiness in a their life, a point drawn out in verses 5:13-14

13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

Making such a strong conclusion that one’s doctrinal capacity is closely related, or even dependent upon, godliness, might sound strange.  But looking closely at the passage above, this is precisely what is being conveyed.  Central to this conclusion are the phrases unskilled in the word of righteousness and powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.  In the former phrase, we see the exhortation that these believers were inexperienced in the gospel as well as its moral or ethical implications.  With the latter phrase, we find this point expanded upon by further defining this inexperience as a failure to habitually exercise the senses (of discernment) to distinguish good from evil.  More pointedly, their error can be boiled down to a lack of wisdom, which we might define as the spiritual ability to derive ethical living from the truths of  God’s Word.  Primarily it was a failure to allow orthodoxy to lead to orthopraxy.

How common is this in our own generation!!

With this in mind, it seems reasonable to conclude that the first use of sluggishness is a reproof against doctrinal apathy leading to moral laxity which in turn leads to further doctrinal deficiency.  There is a symbiotic relationship, a dependency, of doctrine and practice.

The closing bracket of our inclusio of sluggishness takes on a different tone.  After warning his readers on the danger of apostasy and the impossibility of return, the author switches gears to matters of salvation that pertain more closely to his audience.  Below is the closing exhortation of this critically important third warning in Hebrews

Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

It’s important in this conclusion to recognize the commendation that the author gives to his hearers.  Some key observations are noted below:

  1. Work
  2. Love for God’s Name
  3. Serving the saints
  4. Earnestness

Despite the exhortation from earlier to reinvigorate their theological ears and pursue holiness in their individual lives, collectively they are praised for their work in earnestly expressing love for the name of God through their service to other believers.

In summary, this second use of sluggishness is a warning against falling into practical laziness as it relates to the service of other believers, an error into which they had not yet entered, but one that appears to be the logical conclusion of the theological deficiency and moral laxity that they had slipped into.

This warning on the tragedy of sluggishness: laziness in our doctrine, holiness, and love for others, should be taken with the utmost seriousness.  It’s no coincidence that the book’s strongest warning against apostasy is encapsulated by this inclusio of sluggishness.  Therefore, it is imperative for us to be daily reminded of the gospel and its practical implications.  It is not enough to be able to provide a theologically precise definition of justification without being able to see the practicality of that same justification.

The entire book of 1 John presents a similar exhortation: Know God. Grow Holy. Show Love.  That is the summation of the Christian life.  Neglect in any aspect is a recipe for spiritual shipwreck.

Have you Considered Job

 

It seems only fitting that a post on Job should follow up the post on Moses’ sin, particularly as it relates to the effects that sin may have on an individual.  In that post, though we saw that Moses’ actions had the direct consequences of prohibition into the Promised Land, there was also mention of the danger in wrongly applying our circumstances to an individual sin.

An example of this wrong application may be seen on the part of the disciples in John 9 where our Lord and His disciples encounter a man who was blind from birth and they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus replied that neither this man nor his parents sinned but that he was blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him.  This isn’t to imply that this man, nor his parents, never sinned, only that his blindness was not a direct result of an individual act of sin.

Enter Job.

In the book of Job we are introduced to a righteous man.  This declaration by God defines all that comes afterwards and in fact aides in understanding Job’s response to his personal calamity.  What does it mean that Job was righteous?  It CANNOT mean that Job was sinless.

This is important.

Here’s what we read in the prologue of Job:

“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” Job 1:1

Three key descriptions are given to Job:

  1. Blameless and Upright
  2. Feared God
  3. Turned Away from Evil

In short, we may surmise that Job did not live in open sin and he feared God.  By all accounts we would describe him as a morally upright man.  If we were to strictly conclude that individual sins may always be directly correlated to “disciplining” events in our life at the hand of God, as we saw with Moses, it would appear that Job would be the least likely candidate for what was to happen in his life.

In other words, there is not a DIRECT correlation between a particular sin that Job committed and the suffering that he endured.  This was partly the error of his 3 counseling “friends” who felt that the justice of God demanded that He must bring physical retribution against any and all sin, so that must be the reason for Job’s troubles.  They represent the classic example of misapplying correct doctrine.  Essentially they were flattening out the justice of God to an across the board application.  More on that perhaps in another post.

So what may we glean from Job that would help us better maintain the tension between sin and discipline that was mentioned in the post on Moses’ sin?

First, through Job we see that physical suffering is not necessarily tied to individual misdeeds or sin.

Second, because we live in a fallen world, all suffering finds its roots in sin, generally.

Third, we often do see the wicked prospering, but it does not mean that God is unjust.   We need also to remember that in such a case, God is storing up wrath for the Day of Judgment (Romans 2:5-11).  Conversely, we often see the “righteous” suffering, though this is only temporary and is not to be compared with the eternal weight of glory which awaits them.

Fourth, when suffering does come, it is not punishment, though it may be discipline for our good and God’s glory.  This may require that we expand our understanding of God’s discipline to realize that it is always loving, it is always to purify, and though it may be generally painful, it is temporary and working to conform us more to the image of Christ (See Hebrews 12:4-13).  In other words, suffering is never meaningless.

Fifth, God is sovereign over every circumstance, including the trials and tribulations that come in our lives.

Six, when suffering/discipline comes we should

  • A) Recognize the hand of a Holy God
  • B) Recognize our own inherent sinfulness.

Seven, trust as Job did, in our Mediator – Jesus Christ; that He intercedes on our behalf to the Father;  and that through Christ we may come to the mercy seat and find grace in our time of need.

Eight, in the face of suffering at the disciplining hand of Almighty God, consider 1 of 2 responses

  • A) Keep our mouths shut before the all-holy God
  • B) Confess our inherent sinfulness and plead mercy on behalf of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In either or both responses, trust the sovereign hand of a just, holy God (more to come on this in the next post, Lord willing).

There is a danger in reading of a tragedy like Moses’ where his sin was specifically tied to an episode of discipline and then extract that principle across the board, either to our own lives or to the lives of others, wrongly concluding that a particular sin or lifestyle of sin has caused a difficult circumstance to arise.  Make no mistake, it can, as with Moses, and this should cause us holy, reverent fear of God, but it cannot be flattened across the board, as with Job.

God is far too complex for that simplistic view of how He governs the universe.  Again, this was one of the errors of Job’s friends.

In summary, as believers in Christ when we experience challenging and trying situations or are counseling others through them, we need to avoid the two ditches of applicational error.  The first, that of Job’s by thinking that we do not deserve to suffer.  The other,  that of his friends, by thinking that all trials are just retribution and precisely what we deserve.  Keeping this balance and maintaining this tension will go along way towards helping us navigate the waters of difficulty.

The Strangulation of Anxiety

 

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:4-7

In the passage cited above, the Apostle Paul is concluding his letter to the ekklesia at Philippi with an exhortation toward the attitude and actions of believers which should spring forth from a heart of joy (vs. 4).  The focus of this exhortation arises in verse 6 with the familiar statement, “be anxious for nothing” buttressed with the countering statement of “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  I’ve written elsewhere on the significance of this passage in connection with contentment in the life a believer, but here, I’d like to focus on the theme of anxiety itself.

anxiety-charlie-brownOur English word anxiety comes from the Latin word angere meaning “to choke, squeeze, or strangle” particularly around the neck, a very appropriate definition given the effects of anxiety on the emotions and the physical manifestations it can have on the body.  Anyone who has ever battled with anxiety or has ever experienced a panic attack knows this feeling all too well.  It’s not surprising then that the Apostle Paul takes special mention here to guard the heart of believers against anxiety, expressly commanding that there be no room given for thoughts of anxiety.

This makes it all the more surprising that a recent mega-blogger shared and endorsed a post written by someone who struggles with anxiety who had accepted it as a natural part of his physiology and physical makeup describing it as a mental disorder.  In his article he makes it clear that his anxious disorder(s) are not a Matthew 6 or Philippians 4 issue, though he offers no exegesis to prove this point nor does he interact with any of the dozens of times that Jesus says do not be afraid, nor the 100’s of times that Scripture as a whole makes this exhortation.    However, I agree with his personal assessment and at the same time vehemently disagree with his biblical dismissal.

Please allow me to explain and know too that I am writing as one who has battled anxiety in various shapes and forms for 25+ years myself, though largely failed to recognize this until around 5 years ago.  I too share in the same shock that this particular blog author experienced when I was told that my physical symptoms (panic attack) were the product of anxiety.  I too have been paralyzed by fear and impending doom such that the fetal position seems the only safe spot and hours of prayer the only relief.  So it is not from a detached perspective that I write my criticisms of his position.  As well, it is not with a judgmental or condemning spirit that I write this, but one that offers hope; hope that one can be freed from anxiety by the grace of God and power of the Holy Spirit having no need to throw one’s hands in the air,  resigning oneself to a mental or physiological disorder.

First, as written in the previous article linked to above, anxiety is a sin.  There is simply no other way to state this.  Allowing one’s mind to be overcome with paralyzing fear, whether it be fear of impending doom, social encounters, sickness, or death, is a failure to trust in the promises and providence of God.  Try as I may, I simply cannot give biblical latitude here.  Certainly there is healthy fear that restrains one from harm, such as speeding down a hill on a skateboard, handling a poisonous snake, etc., but that’s not what’s being discussed here and not what I’m describing as a sin.  Additionally, anxiety can often act as a “gateway sin”, meaning that when it flares up and takes its hold, it can cause us to trend towards other sins: detachment from family and reality – which can take many forms such as alcohol or drug abuse, pornography, excessive amounts of “wasting time” or vegging out in order to cope, along with other more obvious sins such as anger, impatience, laziness, etc.

By calling anxiety sin, this classifies it as a spiritual issue, though like other sins, this doesn’t detach it from its physical or mental connections. It’s a very gnostic idea that attempts to separate the spiritual from the physical and its “Christian” counterpart, perfectionism, seeks to do the same thing.  Avoiding those errors gives us a proper biblical approach to take.

As an aside, since I’ve taken the stance that anxiety is a spiritual issue, does this mean that I am anti-medication?  Yes and No.  In my particular case, I chose not to pursue medication, however I realize that some cases of anxiety (and let’s include its twin, depression) can be so severe that medication is necessary.  However, I would take the position that this medication should not be a permanent solution, but a temporary one to help a struggling person gain traction until a firm footing on the Word of God can be reestablished.

Secondly, in the article the author seems to take a “born this way” approach to anxiety, resigning himself to suffer at its grip.  This is a dangerous precedent and should be avoided at all costs.  It’s the same argument that is raised over homosexuality, alcoholism, and other sins that we classify as tendencies because of environmental or physiological effects.  Was he or any other sufferer of anxiety (me?) born this way?  Yeah, probably, because we are born sinners.  Our bent towards sin, while universal in its rebellion against God, is individual and unique in how it manifests itself, but there is simply no room to use this as an excuse for any sin, whether that be homosexuality or anxiety.  It is akin to saying to the Potter, “why did you make me this way.” Rom. 9:20-21  I, along with the Apostle Paul, would strongly caution against such reasoning.

This brings me to my third critique, that we are all born in sin, but are each given to particular sins and this often leads to confusion in trying to isolate and understand how sin works in an indiveyore_woe-is-meidual.  Because you or I may battle with anxiety, this doesn’t make us less or more sinful.  It doesn’t make us less or more in need of grace.  It’s real easy to have a woe-is-me outlook toward personal sin, as though your the only person who has ever or will ever battle it.

Because we live in a fallen world, there are naturally differing sins we are each exposed to, culturally or socially, and individually our fallen human natures are uniquely wired which may cause one person to have weakness towards a particular sin, while another person does not, but the universal principle of sin still remains.  For examples of this, consider reviewing the Old Testament witness of those saints listed in Hebrews 11 and note their character struggles (though keep in mind, Hebrews does not include these!)

Fourthly, if we take the approach that certain sins, here anxiety/depression, are physiological does this weaken or limit the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives?  Said another way, is the Holy Spirit powerful enough to overcome a persons anxiety and give them victory over it if we conclude that it is a physical condition?  Or are His hands tied along with those of the anxious?  Does He really want to help, but because its “physiological” He’s somehow become impotent?  This seems contrary to Scripture as well.  In fact, our Lord’s earthly ministry was principally concerned with the proclamation of the gospel and the assertion of Christ’s dominion over all dimensions of creation, including the physical.  “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” Matt. 9:35  The “affliction” of anxiety, whether or not we agree on where it resides, in the physical or spiritual or perhaps both intertwined, relief from its strangulation is not outside the sphere of sovereignty in which our Lord reigns.

Having briefly summarized some critiques with the viewpoint of the author in that post, let’s turn now toward how  one takes up the battle against the python of anxiety, which itself could be a critique though certainly he is to be commended for encouraging others to help him by proclaiming the gospel.

Before outlining some strategic approaches to fight this particular sin, we must first realize that anxiety/depression (and really alot of other sins) are ongoing fights, meaning the fight doesn’t begin when the panic sets in, just like the fight against other sins doesn’t begin at the moment of temptation, rather, it begins way in advance.

First, and probably most obvious is to make a daily, regular, and consistent habit of engaging in the spiritual disciplines.  Here I include prayer, reading the Bible, studying the Bible, and giving the mind over to meditation on the things read and studied.  Meditation is key.  The Puritans referred to Scripture study as the planting of the seed, but meditation on these truths is the watering of that seed.  No water, no growth.  Meditation is the way of filling the mind with thoughts on God’s Word, rather than allowing the mind to dwell on sinful thoughts.  Those who struggle with anxiety (or depression) are particularly given to thoughts of introspection, therefore it is all the more imperative to give your mind intentionally and consistently to meditation. If you’re unsure of how or what true biblical meditation is, let me commend Thomas Watson’s A Christian on the Mount.  It is simply excellent.

Second, read devotionally, especially the Puritans.  By this I don’t simply mean any devotional, especially not a light and fluffy one (the Puritans didn’t write those!), but one with deep theological insights that give the mind a cold as ice resolve for truth, yet warm the heart with affections overflowing for Christ.  This is the specialty of the Puritans, start with them.  Puritan Paperbacks are a good intro, particularly The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs.  Additionally, I would add Spiritual Depression by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, which has been especially used by God in my own fight against anxiety.

Third, pray often, particularly against the sin of anxiety.  This is probably most obvious, but also highly neglected.  I don’t necessarily mean here the short quick prayers throughout the day, neither do I intend the prayer that accompany feelings of anxiety.  I have in mind a set, regular, and extended time of prayer which one should give themselves over to in regular communion with God.

Finally, allow me to offer some helps for those times in which we feel the serpent of anxiety squeezing around our neck:

  1. Preach to yourself. Preach until it subsides; Preach every passagepreach_lloyd_jones of Scripture you know; Preach the Gospel – every aspect of it that comes to mind and don’t stop until the thoughts of anxiety and fear have subsided- then pray and go back to the Word – it’s the Sword of the Lord, but it’s useless if left in its sheath.
  2. Get away to meditate.  Particularly helpful is the observation of nature while we are meditating on the Word of God.  Interestingly, this is precisely the exhortation that our Lord gives in His own address against anxiety – Matthew 6:25-34.
  3. Talk aloud to someone about it.  Sometimes the ear and voice of a mature Christian friend, or spouse, during times of anxiety can bring relief.  Either by praying with us, or being a voice of reason against the irrationality of anxiety.  In this way, consider the application of James 5:16.
  4. Journal.  Journaling is not merely an exercise for pre-teen girls in their Hello Kitty journal, but can actually be a form of meditation. I used this blog as such a medium years ago when I first began and it served as a tremendous way to combat anxiety, while simultaneously providing clarity of my theological thoughts and beliefs.  By the way, much of what I’ve written above is actually a sermon to myself on the sinfulness of anxiety.
  5. Chop wood. I read once that one of the strategies against anxieties employed by the reformer Martin Luther was chopping wood.  Generally applied, this can be any physical activity as all will serve the same function to refocus the thoughts of introspection onto the task at hand.

In closing, let’s conclude with a word by the aforementioned Dr. Lloyd-Jones from Spiritual Depression:

“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc.

Somebody is talking. Who is talking? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says: ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you.’…

The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’– what business have you to be disquieted?

You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’– instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do.

Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God.’”