I’m a sinner. And there’s no caveat coming to make it any less serious than it first sounds . . . a fact that shames and grieves me. If it weren’t for God’s mercies in Christ I would be buried by the pain of that reality. Yet in his mercy I find comfort and relief.
So let me ask you, dear readers, for your own mercy as I say more about both my sin and God’s response of mercy.
About my sin: I’m mostly blind to the problem. But the Bible tells me that my blindness is a personal preference. How so? Because sins are the fruit of willful blindness as we prefer darkness instead of light. Jesus in John 9, for instance, exposed the blindness of a group of local spiritual leaders who condemned him for healing a blind man. Those leaders—physically sighted but spiritually blind—denied a reality that the newly healed blind man saw clearly. In such cases a heart directs the mind to defend attitudes and actions at all costs—thus offering self-protective “rationalizations” or “excuses” for broken attitudes and actions.
So how do I get over my blindness and see my sin? By a changed heart. And then by simple observation . . . as I begin to hear and see what others are constantly telling and showing me! If I’m ready to notice I begin to see their hurts, their disappointments, their grief as my sin hits them and causes pain. Their loss of trust in me and respect for me is a clue. The absence of our continued fellowship and care is another. Another source is my conscience as I sense flashes of grief and guilt that invite me to pause and reflect. But mainly in the Spirit’s small nudges as I read the Bible and see a dissonance between what it offers and what I experience.
I know, given the title of this post, that a dangling question is waiting to be answered: “So, what is your sin? Is it the pornography thing? Or some other sexual misconduct?”
No. It has a common root but it’s different.
Is it an issue of lying, or cheating, or stealing?
No, it’s different, though it shares the same heritage. That is, it’s similar in that it’s an addiction.
Do I mean, by using the “A-word”, that it’s a drug or alcohol issue? No, it’s not that, although the power it has over me is certainly similar. I know this because the Bible calls all of these issues, mine included, slavery. I sin because I’m enslaved to sin—just as Jesus taught in John 8 and Paul unpacked in Romans 6—and I’m only able to escape that slavery through his higher, greater power.
So here it is. I’m enslaved to self-love.
It’s also called pride, arrogance, and selfishness. It displays itself in a dismaying host of behaviors: in anger, snide comments, arguments, gossip, careless choices, and in a full-orbed devotion to self protection and personal advancement. I always want what I perceive is best for me.
I’m able to avoid most of the disapproval that comes from being seen as a sinner. I do that by avoiding the overt features of simple narcissism, but only because in my personal pride I want to be seen by others as altruistic and noble. And there are other effective rationalizations I often use. For one, I’ve learned to love others as long as they love me, so it looks as if I’m unselfish even if my apparent selflessness is merely conditional and contractual (as in “I’ll care for you just as long as you satisfy my wants”).
And I’m also sheltered by a very co-dependent culture. That is, my sin is shared by so many others that it’s actually seen as a virtue in some circles, as in “he’s very self-directed” or “she certainly knows what she wants!” Martin Luther even talked about it as the basic problem of sin in all of humanity by describing it as the soul being “curved in” on itself.
But my sin is being exposed more and more as I grow in faith. One example of the continuing collapse of the “kingdom of Ron” came with the recognition that I needed to get away from my former addictive hideouts. Jeremiah, especially, was used to expose the area where my own sin prospered most: in the love of wisdom. Or, to be more exact, in the kingdom where wisdom is royalty—in the academy. When, in Jeremiah 9:23-24, he warned readers not to “boast” in wisdom, might, or riches, but to boast in God alone, it dawned on me that my own selfish susceptibility was not in might or in riches but in the glory of knowing and teaching truth. In the status of being a protestant “Rabbi”, “Professor”, and “Dr Frost”.
As an addiction that holds social status it feels almost impossible to avoid regular relapses. Yet Paul—as one who held some of the highest academic credentials of his day—offers me hope by his status as another recovering addict. Specifically in 1 Corinthians 1 Paul cited Jeremiah (in verse 31) as his basis for preaching only about the simplicity of the cross even though he knew he was being demeaned for it by his “brilliant” former classmates.
Let me add, quickly, that a repentance from the love of wisdom and a growing embrace of Christ crucified is not the same thing as a pursuit of ignorance or a dismissal of education. Hardly! It actually allows a new and spiritually productive wisdom to emerge in which God is honored and Christ is central. There’s no end to learning once that occurs. Indeed, every era and wing of learning is useful for that growth . . . as long as it serves the “lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness” in which God delights (referencing Jeremiah 9 again).
Some of the greatest of Christian scholars turned their backs on the glory offered by their own academic generations and in the end became the strongest beacons of truth and spiritual substance in their day. Not just Paul, but Augustine, Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, and Calvin are exemplars of this. Even Christ’s apostles were so clear in their thinking and awareness that their opponents were “astonished” by the power of their testimonies of Christ as risen from the dead [Acts 4]. True wisdom is all about who we know, not just in what we know.
How dangerous is my sin? Enough to be devastating if it isn’t broken by a Spirit-birthed repentance. I recall the “woes” Jesus spoke to the first-century near equivalent of the today’s seminary professors at Bible-believing institutions, namely the “teachers of the law”: “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key to knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” [Luke 11:52]. So, too, the most rigorous of the Bible enthusiasts of Christ’s day were exposed by Jesus as they promoted moralistic themes that featured spiritual minutiae. What was his charge? They had corrupt desires: “inside you are full of greed and wickedness” [Luke 11:39]. And “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces!” It’s not that their teachings were necessarily wrong . . . but that they were sinners who portrayed themselves as godly by associating themselves with God’s words. And while charging others with superficial behavioral sins they cuddled their own sinful self-love.
The question of what Jesus meant in Luke by the “key to knowledge” being withheld by these teachers isn’t unpacked in that gospel, but my own tender conscience and hard experience takes me to John’s gospel for the answer. Recovery from addictive self-love comes only through turning to a true and proper love. Only then does real wisdom come to life.
In John 5 Jesus had expressed his own equality with God after healing a lame man. In that setting Jesus noted his bond with God: “For the Father loves the Son . . .” But his audience, and the religious leaders in particular, were having none of it. So Jesus exposed the missing key in their theology:
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life: and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from man. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. [John 5:39-42]
So the “love of God within you” is the key to offering any reliable truth about God. And an appetite for mutual human glory—the stuff that academic communities live on through giving grades, honors, wearing gowns and competing for academic standing—is utterly ungodly for an addicted person like myself. Jesus continued his charge against me:
How can you believe when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? [verse 42]
Again, later in John’s gospel, the same destructive sin of loving human approval is again noted by the gospel writer.
Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. [John 12:43-43]
So, my friends, I’ve opened my soul to you. I’m in recovery right now. Yet I still take up the various types of mirrors that society and well-meaning church friends offer me that give me glimpses of self-centered glory. But now I know better. And my determination is to know Jesus, and to know him as crucified for my sin . . . and risen to a new life in which he embraces me before the Father. And I love him because he first loved me, even while I was dead and blind in my sin. So please don’t quit praying for me, and I’ll be praying for you. Let’s repent together and then go on to enjoy God’s glory rather than our own.
me too…i feel God’s Holy Spirit slowly refining me, God is faithful.
there has always been a purpose for these adversity’s,they grow up the children of God to maturity and “full stature” in Christ. Rev 12:11
“for i am persuaded..” Romans 8: 38-39
nothing can separate me…nothing
Proverbs 24:16 …i continue to rise!
..so i will fix my mind on things above!!
we will pray for one another, and when we see him, we will be free.
And this helps me understand your decision, in re. to the seminary.
But this does lead me to another related question; for those “rabbis” left in the academic setting, is it possible for anyone to be there with “right motives?” I dare say you are not unique in this regard, and that most profs probably suffer from this same “curving in.”
In other words, doesn’t this mean that the “academic” setting is defunct, as is? In the sense that it is indeed built upon the accolades of “men,” methodologically and institutionally versus the true glory of God. It seems to me, that academia (even though the LORD is still able to use it for His purposes) needs to be “gutted,” so to speak, and reshaped, intentionally built upon a theology of the cross (okay so I’m an idealist) . . . or maybe even more ideally, the church could actually function as it should.
I’ll be praying, and I would appreciate your prayers, in this re., as well.
Hmmm… a seminary based on the theology of the cross. As I read the New Testament, I see the Apostles engaged in just such a seminary. They met with people up close and personal. They got to know people and shared God’s word, the cross of Christ, the Lord’s Supper and a celebration of life together. Those who were touched by the love of God shared that love with others, who shared with others, who shared with others…
In my experience, the Bible read-throughs are a similar experience. Perhaps the seminary to which you are referring, Bobby, is as simple as being in the Word together in small groups, after which each of the participants takes that same lead in read-throughs with others; a “Fellowship of the Word” that finds life and learning in the Bible.
Thanks for your transparency, Ron. I too am a sinner!
Good question, Bobby. I meant for my caveat to address that concern, i.e. in my comment:
“Let me add, quickly, that a repentance from the love of wisdom and a growing embrace of Christ crucified is not the same thing as a pursuit of ignorance or a dismissal of education. Hardly! It actually allows a new and spiritually productive wisdom to emerge in which God is honored and Christ is central. There’s no end to learning once that occurs.”
So I still love the academy and I’m even back at my old locale teaching a concentrated 5-week course in Church History for the college.
And I wouldn’t ever trade in the benefits of what I’ve learned through academic work. So I don’t view academic work itself as anything but good. The problem comes when our hearts are feeding our self-love-through-wisdom which, in turn, allows us to love the glory of man rather than the glory of God.
So the issue is complex. But isn’t this the same tension we face of being “in the world but not of the world”?
Mark, I agree that your response captures a crucial point: that the CENTER of a real education comes through the Word and by way of the cross. Paul’s discussion of God’s wisdom and the wisdom of the world in 1 Corinthians 1-2 is so powerful on this.
My caveat, underlined in response to Bobby, touches my concern that if a future Augustine, Luther, or Calvin were to miss a rigorous engagement with various profound resources for learning because they chose to avoid the problems inherent in the Academy, we’re much the poorer. Indeed, if that godly student studies formally without getting captured by the love of human glory then we’ll all be blessed! But it can only come by reading while sitting at the base of the cross.
I did see that caveat in the body of your post . . . I just wanted to press it a bit 🙂 ; so thank you for indulging me.
Yes, it does seem that being fleshly, and being “spiritual” (Gal. 5:17) is a constant struggle; and I would imagine any “gutting” of any seminary, would only serve to produce another institution (made of people) in need of another “gutting” (II Cor 3:18) . . . so goes sanctification 🙂 .
Bible read throughs are indeed essential, in fact the life-blood of our lives; as the Spirit takes those words, implants them in our hearts, and points us to the Son (and thus the Father) through them. I would like to think (and do) that this process of reflecting on the scriptures is what we have embedded in the life of the church, through the lives of the saints (through the centuries); which we have the privilege of participating in, and adding to, until we are all finally shaped into the perfect image of Christ (glorification).
This is my way of affirming Ron’s point: . . . touches my concern that if a future Augustine, Luther, or Calvin were to miss a rigorous engagement with various profound resources for learning because they chose to avoid the problems inherent in the Academy, we’re much the poorer. . . .
I had a rather heated argument with someone last night, wherein “my honor” was impugned. I fought back, hard. Because the thing I loved the most in that moment was myself. It was evening and I denied Christ at least three times “before the rooster crowed.” Not overtly, but implicitly and just as easily as Peter. I read your post with tears. Thank you. I’m going to go apologize now, first to God and then to someone he loves very much.
Great post Ron, all fellow sinners should resonate with it as I do! I just came across this quote from Elisabeth Elliot:
“The disciple is not on his own, left to seek self-actualization, which is a new word for old-fashioned selfishness. He is not ‘doing his own thing’ to find his own life or liberty or happiness. He gives himself to a Master, and in so doing leaves self behind.”
Indeed, we do give ourselves to a Master. A master who loved us first by giving Himself. No qualification allows us to truly grasp this reality!
Thanks for the striking quote from Betty Elliot, Peter, and for the tenor of the other responses. This is such an important topic!
I have been mulling over Bobby’s question about a better approach to education in light of the addictive tendencies common to current schools. My concern still stands, i.e. that we should not despise what formal training offers. I can’t imagine, for instance, learning Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and huge amounts of history reading without having the structures of a classroom in play. But there is much to be said about rethinking our approach to Bible and theology . . . of moving it into the church where every claim of truth can be measured by an applied expression of love. We might begin to grasp much more fully what it means to “speak the truth in love” that way!
So, Bobby and Mark (you affirmed the point, Mark), what will your full proposal look like? I like the Bible read-through starting point!
How brutally honest, Ron! God has also been showing me areas in my life where self-love has ruled – specifically in my desire to prove my worth to others.
After the painful departure from my previous ministry position, I naturally started to look for another ministry through which I could fulfill my calling. Nothing wrong in that! But God has been showing me that underlying the good motivations was another one – a desire to prove to everyone (and maybe even myself!) that I could do the job, that other people saw value in me and my experience and expertise – that my previous ministry had lost a good thing when they lost me!! How very sinful and “curved in” on myself!
But God in his mercy has not allowed me to find another position as yet. He knows that even though my primary motivations are good and holy, this underlying one would have poisoned any ministry I did. Instead He has gently taught me once again to leave my reputation with Him; that the important thing is not what we do, but who we are in those quiet moments of honesty before Him and in the “everydayness” of life.
I am not giving up ministry! I continue to work on finding a way to fulfill my calling. But I am more aware of my motivations now and pray that God will purify them and lead me to the next phase in my life when I am able to proceed with pure motives – not selfish ones.
thank you, I like your idea.
Thanks, Becky. Self-love is certainly self-blinding in my own experience; I’m glad to hear I’m not alone! Let’s thank God for the new awareness we’re invited to enjoy as we ask God himself to search us and to know our hearts (e.g. Psalm 139).