The Way of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you. Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice or I would bring it. You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:10-17 NIV).
Today I want you to help me solve a mystery. It is a mystery, I suppose, of our own making but it is a deeply shocking revelation of the human heart. I know, I know, it’s nothing new. The Bible says that the “heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV). And that especially applies to mine. The mystery is really about the ways my heart is deceitful, the manner in which my spiritual blindness manifests itself and what I can do about it. Let me try to describe the problem in some more detail….
Many people have spoken and written about the concept of “brokenness” and having a contrite heart. Well, and good. But most of it has been written from the perspective of being accused, perhaps falsely accused. Like Jesus. Peter tells us to follow in his steps. “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (I Peter 2: 23 NIV).
That’s not so easy to do. One thing is when you are being falsely accused by someone outside the church, someone who is not committed to the ways of God. That is persecution. That is our witness. Also not easy, but it can be understood straightforwardly enough. But when it comes from your Pastor, your spouse, your brother or sister in Christ. What’s that all about? And I’m not talking about the religious types in the church or even the immature Christians who just don’t know any better. That, too, can be handled, understood, put up with for the sake of Christ. But I generally let my guard down a bit with those who are mature brothers and sisters in Christ, leaders of the church, truly people of God. They often take me by surprise.
Now, the first thing that needs to be said, obviously, is that if they are mature believers in Christ, maybe they are in the right and you are in the wrong and the work that needs to be done is in your own heart. Good point. And we should always start there. Giving them the benefit of the doubt is a smart thing to do because your (and my) heart is also deceitful above all things. No mystery there.
But if, after searching your own heart and perhaps talking to a godly counselor, the obvious conclusion is that the accusation is still false, and therefore you cannot confess it (or repent of it), what do you do? And more, when it is as plain as the nose on your face that your accuser just did the very same thing that they accuse you of (which you didn’t even do), and even a worldly psychologist not interested in the gospel can see is a case of transference, what do you do? Let me give you some examples….
I know of a situation where a woman forgave her repentant husband for a one-night stand affair while traveling (a lot). She loved him. She loved the Lord even more and chose to forgive. Her own sister could not do the same. To this day she deeply dislikes this man and is unreconciled to him. She and her husband are godly people involved in ministry and are obviously Christians and, I would say, mature ones. That is not the mystery.
The mystery is that she and her husband went through a very similar situation years ago and she also made the choice to forgive and today they have a very good marriage. And yet, when her sister makes the same choice, she becomes the accuser and remains, for years, unreconciled with the husband of her sister. But wait. We have not yet arrived at the mystery. Even worldly psychologists can understand what is going on here up to this point.
The mystery is that there is no conviction of sin. There is no awareness of spiritual blindness. There is no sense of guilt or unease or reflection on their own behavior. There is no awareness of being unreconciled with someone other than as some general background noise in their lives that doesn’t really matter much. No recognition that it is keeping them from the abundant life, that there is no power, no anointing in their lives or ministry because they refuse, or are unaware of the importance of spiritual unity as a prerequisite for the anointing of God (Psalm 133).
Another example, just so that you know this is not an isolated case. A Pastor comes to visit because he became aware that one of his flock was upset with him. He didn’t realize that he had made him look bad in public. Not once but a couple of times. It wasn’t the action that hurt so much as the underlying lack of sensitivity or lack of caring that was the problem. It was a symptom of a relationship problem. Psychology 101. Most of the time, the problem is the perception and reality of the relationship not the action itself. In the conversation that ensued, it becomes obvious that the Pastor interprets everything that his parishioner says in a negative light. Another symptom. Until he starts to make accusations against his character and interprets his relationship with the church as problematic and reveals that the Board doesn’t trust him. Now we are getting down to the truth. But that isn’t the problem. The Pastor agrees with the Board, even though explanations are given as to why there is a disagreement and that is based on a spiritual witness to a largely religious leadership. And the Pastor ought to know that since he, himself, just went through the same experience.
So far, no real mystery. People often accuse you of things they themselves fear or even of things they themselves went through (in your very same shoes). Human psychology is infinitely complicated and our inability to see our own shortcomings and failures are part of that defense mechanism that protects our egos at any cost in a dark and dangerous world. I get it. What I don’t understand is why normally good, godly people are still so spiritually blind even after going through the same thing themselves. How is it possible that right after the Holy Spirit ministers to them, they turn around and become the accusers for someone else in the very same situation. And I can give you dozens of examples more.
How can Peter give a confession of faith through divine revelation one moment and rebuke Jesus the next? How can an elder preach a wonderful sermon on the mercy of God one moment but right after the service in a quick meeting to solve a problem with a church member, that same elder refuses to show mercy and asks her to leave the church even though she specifically asks for mercy (thinking that it was God’s intervention and mercy that he led this elder to preach about mercy when she so desperately needed some mercy)? But no mercy is given.
How can a Pastor preach on the priority of the poor from the pulpit but threaten to call the police if a specific poor person comes back to the church because he keeps asking for money and bothering the people? How can priests talk about the love of God on Sunday morning and yet abuse the choir boys and acolytes on Wednesday night? How can the Pastor preach vehemently agains pornography and sexual sin on Sunday and be photographed leaving a hotel room on Saturday night with a woman (or man) that is not his wife. And on and on it goes….
The question is not just one of injustice. Yes, it is terribly unjust. It’s a question of spiritual blindness. Yes, you can argue with me as to whether or not these people are even believers. Granted. You can argue that they may not be very mature (even if they are in positions of leadership). Also granted. But the truth is that some of them are believers and mature ones at that and still incredibly blind to their own sin. And worse, accuse others of the very things they themselves were accused of. And don’t even realize it. For years. And therefore there is no true reconciliation. No spiritual unity. No anointing. No power. No abundant life. No transformation.
My wife and I just talked about this last night. Why don’t people change? Why are there so few transformed lives? We worked it all back to one basic truth. If people are not aware of their sin and then confess that sin as sin and start to take steps of repentance (and reconciliation) in faith with the help of their small group of brothers and sisters in humility and brokenness, recognizing their spiritual blindness and dependent on others in a process of individual and group accountability and discipleship, then nothing will happen. And, as we have said, this simply doesn’t happen very often. Especially among the leadership of a church. We skip to forgiveness without dealing with sin. We have a “light” view of reconciliation that focuses on ourselves instead of our ministry (individually and as a small group) to the other. But most of all, it seems, there is simply no conviction of sin. Ever. Why?
People are not aware of their sin. Period. Isn’t that the work of the Holy Spirit? Jesus said, “when he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8 NIV). So why are otherwise normal, mature believers not convicted of their sins? Why can they feel justified over long periods of time that it is acceptable to be unreconciled with a brother or sister in Christ? How is it possible that they can be both a deceiver and an accuser and rationalize that away due to their position in the church as a leader? Where is the work of the Holy Spirit in all of this?
Then I read the passage a bit more closely. It does not say that the Holy Spirit would convict the world (and Christians as well) of sin. It says that he will convict the world of the “guilt” of their sin, not the sin itself. Then I realized that I had my theology wrong. The Holy Spirit always points to Jesus, the Word of God. He does not take the place of the Word of God but directs us to it and the cross of Christ. He convicts us of our guilt not of our sin. The Word of God sets the standard, defines the sin, commands the obedience. The Holy Spirit makes us aware of when we are not living up to that standard of righteousness.
Now, don’t be too quick to say that the Holy Spirit will only convict the world of guilt but not Christians because, after all, Christians have been made righteous by the blood of the lamb and no longer need to deal with sin. True but not true. True in terms of justification. Not true in terms of sanctification. Which is to say that it is true that we have been made legally righteous by the blood of Christ but it is not true that sin is now no longer relevant to our progressive sanctification. Jesus fulfilled the law, he did not set it aside just because he loved us. Sin must be dealt with, not ignored. Otherwise there is no transformation, no change, no power. The power of the cross is in transforming the human heart which starts with confession and repentance and ends with forgiveness and reconciliation not just between us and God but between us and our fellow man (and woman).
Whew! That took us a while to get there but I needed to go through that exercise. Now I can ask the right questions. If the job of the Holy Spirit is to convict us of the guilt of our sin, why is it that we simply don’t recognize sin for what it is? How is it that we are so unaware of the nature and the manifestations of the sin within us? And now, the answer is simple. Because we ignore it. We think that sin is set aside by the cross so we just skip that part and go straight to forgiveness. It’s bad theology. When was the last time you heard a sermon on sin and evil? And, don’t get me wrong. I’m not just talking about focusing on the negative. It’s really about focusing on the positive. Talking about having the mind of Christ and the character of Christ, it’s about hungering and thirsting for righteousness, not just focusing on unrighteousness. It’s about wanting to please God by being aware of our sinful mindset, our tendency to protect our ego at all costs, our reluctance to be broken. When we live in the light, we do not ignore the darkness but we vanquish it by calling it what it is and turning our backs on it. How can we turn our backs on something we cannot clearly see and define. Confession of sins is the essential first step on the way of the cross. That’s why we are spending so much time with it.
What does all of this have to do with brokenness? Humility? Getting rid of self? Not protecting our egos, our positions, our losses? Well, everything. It depends on whether you are the accuser or the accused, the sinner or the sinned-against.
If you are the accused, brokenness is a constant dying to self. Not easy. As Roy Hession, in his little book, The Calvary Road, says, “It will mean no plans, no time, no money, no pleasure of our own. It will mean a constant yielding to those around us, for our yieldedness to God is measured by our yieldedness to man. Every humiliation, everyone who tries and vexes us, in God’s way of breaking us, so that there is yet deeper channel in us for the Life of Christ” (p. 25). Just like Jesus.
But that is only half the battle. Listen carefully, it is only half the battle but it is the first half, the most important half, the place where we must start. Otherwise we will also be blind and deaf to the work of the Holy Spirit. In every accusation there is some truth. In every action against us, we react, we respond very often in the flesh. For every splinter in the eye of the other, there is a log of resentment and bitterness and self-defense in our own. Don’t be too quick to dismiss this first step. Search your own heart first. Even better, ask God to search your heart through the Word of God and reveal any sinful ways in you (and me). That is the first work that needs to be done in humility. Brokenness means starting with yourself.
But there is a second step that is equally necessary even if secondary. That is to accept that searching out when it finds something. One thing is to ask God through the Word to search out your heart, perhaps talk to another godly person, read a good book on the subject bathed in prayer, to be open to conviction, drive self-justification and rationalization away and truly look at the situation from the other person’s point of view, or, more importantly, from God’s point of view, based on his values, his priorities, his plans. Having the mind of Christ. Another thing is to accept that conviction of guilt with regards to sin when it comes.
Roy Hession tells us that “brokenness in daily experience is simply the response of humility to the conviction of God” (p. 23). It is both God’s work and ours. He brings the pressure to bear. He reveals his standard of holiness, his priorities, his values, his point of view, but you must respond, accept, be willing to see yourself as you are in your sin knowing that he has freed you from it’s bonds (precisely through this process of brokenness). Mr. Hession goes on to say that “the Lord Jesus cannot live in us fully and reveal Himself through us until the proud self within us is broken. This simply means that the hard unyielding self, which justifies itself, wants its own way, stands up for its rights, and seeks its own glory, at last bows its head to God’s will, admits its wrong, gives up its own way to Jesus, surrenders its rights and discards its own glory – that the Lord Jesus might have all and be all. In other words it is dying to self and self-attitudes” (p.22).
And don’t think for a moment that this is easy. It is a process. It is the heart of spiritual maturity. It takes training and prayer and effort and failure and more effort and more prayer and more reflection and more training. There is a lot of self to deal with even in the Christian’s life. The difference is whether or not we are aware of it and aware of the process that we must go through to deal with that self. It is especially difficult when we are falsely accused by our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially at the leadership level and we have something real to lose, our reputations, our jobs, our marriages, our livelihoods, our income, our families. These are not light things. And it hurts. And it is dangerous. Love always is because that is what this is in the end. It is love. Love for God directed at the other. Even though they may never recognize how they hurt us. Even though they may never reconcile with us (which is what we want the most). Even though they may never be convicted of their own guilt and sin and spiritual blindness. Even though the wounds of these relationships may only be fully healed in full reconciliation before the throne of God on the final day (even though you can be truly healed – but not fully healed – in this life by giving it over to God).
In the meantime, we must search our own hearts, and have God search our hearts through his Word for anything that is not pleasing to Him, for anything that has broken our relationship with another, for anything that may be lurking in the shadows of our minds that we do not want to face and confess and deal with at the foot of the cross. Is there anyone you are not right with? Is there anyone you cannot pray with and work with with an open and contrite heart according to the gifts that God has given you in the kingdom work of God? That is the goal of spiritual unity after all, isn’t it? Like Samuel, the prophet of old, do we have the courage to ask people if they have anything against us, anything we need to repent of, anything that divides us from the other?
We need to be in a right relationship with God, of course, but also everyone else in the church in order to achieve spiritual unity. That is the highest value of the fellowship. That is what pleases God. That is why he died on the cross so that we might have healed relationships with Him and with others. Roy Hession says, “we shall see His power being demonstrated in our hearts and lives and service, and His victorious life will fill us and overflow through us to others” (p. 21). That is the anointing. Our wills must be broken to his will. Our plans must be turned into his plans. His vision must become ours. His priorities must be our priorities. This is brokenness. This is the way of the cross. Without it, we remain blind and powerless and nothing will change. With it, everything is possible.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God….
Lord, I confess that I am spiritually blind. I have a lot of self still in me and it is hard to get rid of. I can’t do it on my own. Just the other day, someone hurt me deeply and I cried and yelled and got angry and gave all kinds of explanations but there was nothing I could do to change the way that this man saw me. He did not see me that way you see me. He is a leader in the church and his opinion matters. But there was no way to make him understand that he saw me as a loser, a disgrace, a person with all kinds of problems and not worthy to be able to use his gifts in the church. I haven’t been that hurt in a long time, Lord. But I missed the point entirely. It wasn’t about me. I am a loser, a disgrace. I am not worthy in myself. If I look at my flesh, it is nothing but filthy rags. He chose not to see my as I am in Christ and I joined him in that point of view. Lord, forgive me.
It scares me to think that if I just humble myself, he will take that to mean that he is right and my attitude will justify all of his accusations. It may continue like that for years with no solution in sight. I may have to pay a very high price. It doesn’t seem right. But yet, that is what you call me to. I know. Let it go. It’s all true. He has his list of sins that I have committed. I have a longer one with items he doesn’t even know about. And you, Lord, have the longest, most complete one there is. Past, present and future and you have nailed it to the cross and no longer hold it against me. If he does still hold it against me, then I need to accept that and pray for him (and me). I would like full and true reconciliation and that is what I pray for. But it starts with me. Break me, O God. Search me and try me and reveal in me anything that displeases you. The rest is up to you. Thank you for teaching me the way of the cross. I chose to walk in it with you. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.
Read more (from The Temptations of the Cross)
El Shaddai is a mighty God, full of compassion and love, and I could not refuse or doubt him. He would simply have raised Yitz´chak up again from the dead, if need be, to keep his promise that He swore to me on pain of death. No, I could not refuse but it had not been easy.
Looking up, Avraham saw a ram caught by its horns in a bush. Avraham took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son. Avraham called this place, “Yahweh provides.”
It was the waiting that was most difficult, he remembered, for he had known that God required his son from him for a number of days already. They had chopped the wood for the burnt offering and started on the journey to the mountain. God would indicate the place. On the third day they had arrived. (Read more…..)