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.