Treacherous Happiness

I know a lot of godless but sorta-kinda-spiritual people who are very happy with their lives. Many of them, especially those in my neck of the woods (the South), even consider themselves “blessed and highly favored.” These people do not seek God, cherish Christ, or walk in the faith and obedience of the gospel. Their present manner of living looks nothing like the new life that the Spirit gives. But regardless of their lack of interest in the true God, and despite how cheerfully they indulge in the evils he despises, they sincerely believe their happiness of heart is indicative of his loving pleasure toward them.

The Bible diagnoses things a bit differently. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul explained that happy contentment in sin is not an indicator of God’s pleasure or favor, but of his wrath.

Many people think of God’s wrath only in hellfire and brimstone terms. One day, this terrifying manifestation of God’s indignation will be the unending experiential reality of all whose names are not written in the Book of Life (Revelation 20:15). But on this side of the Judgment, the way God most often demonstrates his wrath is by giving people over to all their sinful, soul-destroying delights.

Notice the progression of Paul’s argument in Romans 1:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth . . . although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened . . .

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves . . .

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions . . .

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” – Romans 1: 18, 21, 24, 26, 28

Is your conscience unbothered while you revel in activities that the Bible declares impure? If so, it’s because God, in his wrath, has given you over to impurity. Do you, without a twinge of conviction, delight in pursuing and satisfying unnatural desires? If you do, it’s because God, in his wrath, has given you over to dishonorable passions. Is your life filled with things the Scriptures say ought not to be done? Are you untroubled by this? If so, it’s because God, in his wrath, has given you over to a debased mind.

Hear me, though—this does not have to be the end of your story! Though God’s wrath rests upon you while you remain in unbelief and rebellion (John 3:18), he also extends a merciful hand of salvation toward you. Anyone who will turn from the treacherous happiness they find in their sin and take shelter in the grace of Jesus Christ, God will freely pardon and give a new heart—a heart that desires to pursue the holy happiness in God for which we were all made!

If today you find yourself feeling happy or even “blessed” in an unrepentant way of life, my prayer for you is that God would: 1) graciously trouble your sin-treasuring heart and 2) draw you to his sinner-saving Son. The joy Jesus gives is so much better than the cheap, fleeting, and deceptive happiness sin gives. Only when you know him will you really understand what it means to be blessed.

His Mercies Will Never Cease

I read through the book of Judges this past week and was freshly astonished by God’s faithfulness to his ever-erring people. Soon after Joshua’s generation passed away, “there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord . . . and the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals . . . they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers . . . and they provoked the Lord to anger . . . and he sold them into the hands of their surrounding enemies . . . and they were in terrible distress” (Judges 2:10-15). But things didn’t end here. Though Israel betrayed their Redeemer and rightfully incurred his judgment, “the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them” (Judges 2:16).

Why did God rescue these undeserving people? The text tells us: “For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them” (Judges 2:18). He pitied them. Though these thickheaded, treasonous rebels flat-out rejected his love and goodness, God was moved to compassion as he watched his covenant people suffer the afflictions that he had brought upon them. Yes, God was provoked to anger by their idolatry. But his anger did not endure forever (Psalm 103:9). As he looked upon these people and saw their miseries and sorrows, he, in his incomprehensible mercy, raised up judges to save them. And not just once or twice! This cycle of faithlessness, judgment, and salvation continues throughout the entire narrative of Judges. There even comes a point in chapter 10 at which it seems God’s recurring mercies would finally come to a screeching halt.

“And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, saying, ‘We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals.’ And the Lord said to the people of Israel, ‘Did I not save you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, and you cried out to me, and I saved you out of their hand. Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.’” – Judges 10:10-14

But merely two verses later, the tenderheartedness of God prevails:

“And the people of Israel said to the Lord, ‘We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.’ So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel.” – Judges 10:15-16.

God repeatedly came to the rescue of these rebels. Sometimes he did so in response to their repentance. Sometimes he did so despite there being no evidence of repentance. But he always did so with the knowledge that they would surely turn away from him again—“whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways” (Judges 2:19). Though his people were perpetually faithless, God was perpetually merciful.

What strong encouragement this should be for us today! Things are a bit different now. God’s chosen people are not unregenerate slaves to sin like most of the Israelites were at that time. Those of us who are under the New Covenant in Christ’s blood have received the promised Holy Spirit (Galatians 3:14), who writes God’s laws on our hearts and leads us in paths of righteousness. Our lives are characterized by faith and growing obedience—not unbelief and rebellion. But even though we walk in an enabling power that God’s Old Covenant people lacked, we still sin. We may not ultimately turn away from him and worship other gods as the Israelites did, but we struggle and stumble and fall in our redeemed-but-not-yet-perfect condition. And our struggling, stumbling, and falling can sometimes seem much bigger to us than God’s patience and faithfulness, can’t they?

I have often considered the presence of sin in my life to be a weightier reality than God’s love, mercy, and grace over my life. I have at times convinced myself that I am too wicked, stubborn, and riddled with evil desires for God to continue bearing with me. What absurdity! If God could stomach the ongoing treachery of Israel, how much more is he able to endure the remaining sin of those for whom his Son died? If God could find it in himself to be merciful toward unregenerate idolaters, how much more is he able to be gracious to those who are indwelled by his Spirit and truly desire (but seriously struggle) to love, trust, and obey him?

I’m not saying that God’s patience and mercy give us a license to sin. Those who think in such terms probably do not know Christ. Nor am I saying that God does not ever chastise his children when they go astray, “for God disciplines the one he loves” (Hebrews 12:6). What I am saying is that struggling saints have great reason to believe that God will bear with them until the very end. He is not overwhelmed by our failures. He is not impatient with our frailties. He loves us. And because he loves us, his mercies toward us will never, ever cease.

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.” – Psalm 103:8-14

Where There Is True Holiness, There Will Be Love

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” – 1 Peter 1:14-16

I have often heard God’s holiness defined as his otherness. Though I believe this definition is correct, I think it should be teased out a little. Some might assume God’s holiness involves only the uniqueness of his being—or the absolute otherness of what he is. This is a tremendous element of what it means for God to be holy. He alone is divine, omnipresent, and sovereign. He alone is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the one without origin or limitations or dependence upon anything outside of himself. God is utterly distinct from everything and everyone else in his being.

However, if his holiness is merely the uniqueness of his being, essence, or entity, how could we ever obey Peter’s command to be holy like God is holy? The LORD alone is God; we cannot be what he is!

The holiness of God obviously involves more than the otherness of what he is—it involves the otherness of who he is. God is also distinct from sinful humanity in that his character is completely good. This moral dimension of God’s holiness is what Christians: 1) are commanded to emulate, and 2) have the Spirit-given ability to emulate.

So, what does it look like to grow into the likeness of God’s character? My default response is, “to kill sin and strive for moral purity!” When I envision a person striving to be holy, I see someone who makes it his life’s work to put off every attitude and behavior the Bible deems vile—sexual immorality, dishonesty, greed, gluttony, jealousy, drunkenness, etc. However, I’ve recently come to realize that my perception of holiness and my pursuit of it sometimes lack an indispensable ingredient.

Love. 

Our endeavor to share God’s holiness is not mainly an endeavor to chop away at the various sins that taint our lives. Yes, we are to mortify these things. No doubt about that. But we can only do so effectively, according to God’s prescription for mortification, when our highest aim is to emulate God’s love—one of his chief attributes (1 John 4:8). Jesus makes this clear in Matthew’s Gospel:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 22:37-40

Did you catch what he said at the end there? “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” What he means is that when we love God with all our heart and love our neighbor as ourselves, everything else falls into place! The immoralities in our lives can only be mortified by the sin-crushing weight of love. In fact, there can be no real holiness without love! Jesus harshly rebuked religious leaders who appeared righteous but lacked love for God and man (Matthew 23:23-38). Paul likewise wrote that seemingly holy acts are worthless without love:

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Holiness without love is not true holiness. And a pursuit of holiness that isn’t empowered by love for God and others will never effect real and lasting change in our lives. If we are to truly cast off the works of darkness (Romans 13:12), put on the Lord Jesus (Romans 13:14), and grow in the holiness without which we will not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14), we must, more than anything else, be people of love.

**************

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put [Jesus] to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.’

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise.’” – Luke 10:25-37

God Does Not Find It Difficult to Be Gracious to You

“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” – Romans 8:32

Life sometimes feels like an endless parade of problems, doesn’t it? It seems like as soon as we get through one sticky situation, another comes rolling in quickly on its heels. Some of the issues we encounter are due to our own sin, foolishness, or negligence. Bad decisions have consequences! Others fall into our laps through no clear fault of our own. Sometimes things just happen! But regardless of their cause, problematic situations are ever faithful to complicate our lives.

They also tend to consume us, don’t they? We feel like our souls cannot find rest until we first resolve the dilemma that is robbing us of the trouble-free life we so desire! When we wake, our thoughts immediately gravitate toward the obstacle we are facing. As we perform our daily duties, our minds are preoccupied with the issue at hand. When we try to go to sleep, our worried hearts race with “what ifs.” We fixate on the problem and obsess and fret over it as if our fixation, obsession, and fretting will eventually fix the problem.

I’ve got good and bad news for you (and for me) today: it won’t.

This is bad news in that it makes us feel incredibly weak and vulnerable. We like to believe we have more control over things than we actually do. Sure, there are often steps we can take to work toward resolving a problem. But even in such cases, there comes a point where we have to throw up our hands and say, “I’ve done all that I can do and have zero control over what happens next.”

However, the good news is that we have a kind and sovereign God who is: 1) always working for our good in every trial, and 2) faithful to eventually deliver us from every trial. Did you see Romans 8:32 quoted at the top of this article? If God did not spare his own Son—the object of his fiercest love—but gave him up for us all, why would he now withhold his kindness, power, and provision from us?

Oh, if only I could really believe he does not withhold these things!

I often feel like God finds it difficult to be gracious to me. I am so sinful, so foolish, so undeserving. Why would he want to be for me? Why would he want to help me? Why would he want to deliver me? In Romans 8, Paul is reminding my anxious, slow-to-believe heart that God has already overcome the tremendous obstacles of my sin and demerit. Accomplishing my redemption was his most difficult, most painful, and most costly work. But he has done it! He crushed his beloved Son to reconcile me to himself.

I think Paul is arguing that every good thing God does for me now is easy in comparison to what he’s already done for me at Calvary. If he was willing to give his Son for me while I was still a rebel, now that I am reconciled to him, how much more willing is he to graciously shower me with his kindness, power, and provision? He doesn’t sit back and say, “Alright, I’ve fixed your biggest problem. But you’re on your own with the rest!” No! I think he says, “I’ve fixed your biggest problem, and, now that you are one of my own, I will gladly work every other dilemma you face for your greatest good!”

The Lord may not solve my problems in the same way I would solve them. And he may not do it in the time frame I would like—perhaps my deliverance from some situations will not come until I depart from this world and enter into glory (Philippians 1:19-21). But he is: 1) happily willing and able to flip every bad situation over on its head and cause it to serve my joy in him, and 2) faithful to be with me in the midst of my trouble. I really can find rest in him as I wait on him to perfect that which concerns me (Psalm 138:8).

God Is at Work in Your Suffering (And Not Just in You)

We Christians talk a lot about God’s good purposes in our suffering. And we do so necessarily. We need to be constantly reminded of his sovereign kindness toward us in all things because the brokenness of this world is constantly sinking its teeth into our lives! If our faith is to survive discomfort, sickness, loneliness, hunger, persecution, poverty, spiritual oppression, or any of the other difficulties that may assail us, we must know in the depths of our souls that God has purposed every bit of it to work for our ultimate good.

However, our talk tends to major on what God is doing in us as we endure trials of various kinds. But what about what he might be doing through us as we suffer? I have heard it said that God is accomplishing a million things in every thing that he does. And I believe this is true concerning the trials he allows to come upon us. While he is certainly working for our personal good in them, he is also working for the benefit of the people who are watching us suffer.

To paraphrase John Piper: God looks most treasurable and satisfying in our lives when we rejoice in him as we suffer. It makes sense to our spectators that we are “happy in Jesus” when life is going according to plan. What’s there to be upset about when our mortgage is paid, our health is intact, and our wallets are fat? Following Jesus is easy when life is easy! But when a diagnosis comes, a job is lost, a loved one dies, or a child goes astray and our joy in God endures (or even increases!), we demonstrate how sufficient and satisfying he really is for us.

I will be the first to admit that the suffering I experience is incomparably small when measured against the trials that other Christians are walking through. I am not being physically threatened because of my faith. I have never been imprisoned or had my house set on fire or my property plundered because of my allegiance to Jesus. However, my sinful nature has rendered me predominantly attracted to men and not women, and because of that, my loyalty to Christ requires me to embrace potentially lifelong singleness. And being a single person in a romance-obsessed culture can sometimes be very difficult. It is at times extremely discouraging to think that I might be a societal oddball for the rest of my days in this world.

But despite sometimes feeling like a misfit, I have abiding (and steadily increasing!) joy in my life. Why? Because I know and walk daily with the God of comfort (2 Cor. 1:3), peace (Phil. 4:7), and hope (Rom. 15:13)! He satisfies me in ways and to degrees that nothing else can. With Paul I am able to honestly say, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord!” (Phil. 3:8). And it is this disposition of heart that catches the attention of unbelievers and encourages the souls of fellow believers. The lost are astounded, and fellow believers are uplifted when they see us cry out in the midst of our suffering, “Jesus is enough for me!”

Having Christ-centered joy in the midst of trouble does not mean we do not also experience fear, pain, and sadness. And when these feelings overwhelm us, we don’t need to put on a pretend smile and give insincere praise to God in order to make sure we’re being an effective witness to those around us. It’s okay to let people see our grief. We just don’t want our grief to be all that they see. When we feel completely swallowed up by whatever it is we are going through, we must run to the throne of grace for help, preaching the gospel to ourselves along the way. This, for most of us, will probably be a daily task. But as we fight for Christ-centered joy, and as we truly experience it, the world around us will see and know that our all-sufficient God is always with us—comforting us in our pain, reviving joy in our hearts, and stilling our souls with his incomprehensible peace.

Spiritual Maturity Is Not Stale

“Let us . . . go on to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1)

God expects every Christian to move toward spiritual maturity. The Bible urges us to “flee youthful passions” (2 Tim. 2:22), “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ” (Heb. 6:1), and “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord” (2 Pet. 3:18). There is certainly a season for spiritual infancy—babes in the faith aren’t expected to be fathers in the faith! But God doesn’t will for us to live on spiritual milk forever (1 Cor. 3:12). He calls us to grow up into salvation (1 Pet. 2:2) as we feast on the meat of his Word (Heb. 5:12).

I fear, though, that a twisted view of spiritual maturity has infiltrated the church. Our society tends to equate maturity with conservativeness or sophistication. Exuberance and passion are things thought to belong to youthfulness—things we are expected to grow out of. While this may be partially true, I don’t believe that true maturity necessitates being so cool, calm, and collected that we utterly lack enthusiasm, spontaneity, and zeal.

Nevertheless, many people—including many in the church—believe maturity is this always-composed, genteel manner of behaving. Just consider the way we tend to view new converts. We think their initial enthusiasm about the things of God is cute. We smile as we watch their emotional responses in worship, their shouts of “Amen!” during sermons, and their excitement over seeing the Lord move in the smallest of ways. But we also think to ourselves, “Just give it some time—they’ll grow out of this.” How sad it is that we assume maturation in Christ must result in milder expressions of faith!

I am convinced that many of our spiritual lives feel stale because, in our incessant striving to fit society’s definition of maturity, we actually stifle the work of the Holy Spirit. I see this in my own life!

  • When the Spirit is moving me to raise my hands and sing loudly in worship, why do I often refrain? Because mature people don’t exhibit too much emotion in public. 
  • When I want to verbally and enthusiastically give praise to God, why do I often keep silent or tone down my passion? Because I don’t want to sound silly. 
  • Why don’t I let myself get excited about God moving in seemingly little ways? Because grown-up Christians don’t get worked up over things like that.

Growth in Christ is not the cause of my increasingly stale expressions of faith; conformity to this world is the cause. The lack of visible fervor in my faith-life is not evidence of my spiritual maturity; it is evidence of my spiritual dullness and my fear of man.

Remember when King David danced with all his might before the Lord as the Ark was being brought into Jerusalem? His wife, Michal, abhorred his “shameless” behavior and “despised him in her heart” (2 Sam. 6: 16). His response to her was very matter-of-fact: “It was before the LORD . . . and I will celebrate before the LORD” (2 Sam. 6:21). I don’t think all of us need to run up to the front of the church on Sunday mornings and dance so erratically that we accidentally “uncover ourselves,” as David did (more on that in a minute). But I think we would all do well to emulate his unabashed passion for the Lord. King David wasn’t immature. He wasn’t “too emotional.” He just loved God and was most concerned about pleasing and praising him.

Spiritual maturity is not ashamed to look foolish or “immature” in the eyes of other people. However, I think it’s necessary to note that spiritual maturity is also not helter-skelter. There are some Christian circles in which people think they demonstrate how “deep in the Spirit” they are by running laps around the sanctuary or rolling around on the floor in fits of uncontrollable laughter or smacking people around (I have witnessed all these things). This type of behavior is fleshly, not spiritual. Paul taught that all things “should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). Mature believers do not intentionally distract others or demand to be the center of attention. They obey the promptings of the Spirit and fearlessly express their love for God, but they do so in a spirit of wisdom and self-control.

If God Has Already Forgiven Us, Why Should We Keep Asking for Forgiveness?

I have heard some say that Christians don’t need to regularly confess their sins to God or seek his forgiveness. They argue that because we were cleansed from the guilt of all past, present, and future sins when we converted, it is unnecessary to ask for additional pardon. I understand these folks’ point. We received total absolution when we were justified, right? If God lavished us with full forgiveness the very moment we put our faith in his Son, it might seem illogical to ask him to forgive already-forgiven sin.

But what are we to do with Jesus’ instructions to daily ask God to “forgive us our sins” (Luke 11:4)? What are we to do with people like David, a regenerate man of faith, whom God disciplined because of his failure to confess his sin? See how tormented he was until he acknowledged his sin and attained God’s forgiveness:

“For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” – Psalm 32:3-5

This seems to be one of the many paradoxes we find in Scripture. Has God forgiven those whom he predestined, called, and justified (Romans 8:29-30) of all their past, present, and future sins? He has! Are Christ-professing, cross-clinging believers expected to continually confess their sins and seek God’s forgiveness? They are!

Does this mean, though, that we need to “get saved” all over again every time we sin? Absolutely not! A Christian’s plea for forgiveness is not a plea for justification. God has already done that. However, as Jesus said, even the one who “has bathed” and is “completely clean” still needs to “wash his feet” (John 13:10).

If we know and love Christ, our souls have been bathed in the justifying waters of the gospel. But our spiritual “feet,” which are continually dirtied by the filth of this world, still need regular washing. Even though the sins we commit as regenerate believers do not nullify our salvation, they do fracture our fellowship with God. And until a fracture is mended by a fresh application of God’s forgiving love, we will groan in pain just like King David did when he failed to confess his sin and seek forgiveness.

Christians continue to confess sin and seek forgiveness not to attain salvation but to maintain a clear conscience before God and preserve fellowship with him. By Jesus’ single sacrifice, we have been eternally perfected (Hebrews 10:14). But right now, as we await the full, glorious realization of our purchased perfection, we are in daily need of Christ’s feet-cleansing, conscience-clearing forgiveness.

Genuine Love for God Desires More of God

It is true that God deserves our obedience simply because of who he is. He is the Potter; we are the clay. He is the King; we are his subjects. A creature should comply with his creator’s every command. A servant should submit to his master with no questions asked. But even so, our Creator, King, and Master has not designed us to be emotionless machines. He does not desire forced submission or robotic obedience. He wants us to obey him willingly and gladly—from the heart! He wants us to delight in his commands (Psalm 119:47) and rejoice to do his will (Psalm 119:14). And what is it that produces this kind of joyful, electric obedience in our lives?

Love!

God is pleased with obedience that is compelled by love for him. But what does it mean—or, what does it feel like—to obey God from love? By some people’s definition of love, it would look like impassive, desireless submission. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard it said, “Love is not a feeling; it is commitment and sacrifice!” I agree that it is commitment and sacrifice. And yes, as not-yet-perfect human beings, there are many times we perform acts of love without feeling much emotional satisfaction in the act. However, I would argue that love, in its fullest and most perfect form, always “feels.” It always rejoices. It always delights. Why? Because there are desires bound up in love that are deeply satisfied when we please the one whom we love!

Though it may sound a bit counterintuitive, obeying God from love entails pursuing and gratifying our own self-interests.

The reason I say this may sound counterintuitive is because many people equate self-interest with selfishness—a nasty, loveless thing. But this is an incorrect equation. We don’t love what we don’t want. If we truly love something or someone, we intensely desire more of that thing or person. Therefore, genuine love for God necessitates the presence of holy self-interests. I use the qualifier “holy” because there are obviously types of self-interests that are sinful (or selfish) in nature. If we give money to our church because we want God to restore our gift to us tenfold, our “obedience” is fueled by a sinful self-interest. If we read the Bible every day because we want God to bless us with health, wealth, and prosperity, our “obedience” is motivated by selfish desires. It is wicked to do what God says just because we want to get some earthly reward from him to spend on our passions.

However, it is a good—no, a loving thing when our self-interests are absolutely God-centered. Wanting to experience more of God’s presence and power in our lives is a God-centered self-interest. Longing to be full of his joy is a God-centered self-interest. Desiring to see others know and make much of him is a God-centered self-interest. These kinds of self-interests demonstrate God’s immeasurable worth to us and align perfectly with his own interests! He wants to give us more of his presence and power. He longs to fill us with his joy. He desires to be known and made much of by all peoples.

Obedience that pleases God is that which is birthed out of love for God. And love for God is pregnant with God-centered self-interests. If we think that the loving, sacrificial obedience to which the Gospel calls us requires us to please God without also pleasing ourselves, we are dead wrong. So far as the self-interests that motivate us to obey are God-centered, God is tremendously satisfied with and glorified in our obedience.

 

 

Do You Grieve Sin in a Godly Way?

Many of us are painfully familiar with the sorrow that follows sinful acts. Whenever the cheap thrill of a transgression wears off, our souls swell with regret, frustration, and maybe even despair. But this is a good response, isn’t it? Only regenerate hearts respond negatively to sin, right?

Our grief certainly can be evidence that the Spirit has given us a new heart—if it is the right kind of grief.

The apostle Paul wrote:

“ . . . I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” – 2 Corinthians 7:9-10 (emphasis mine)

There are two very different kinds of grief we might feel in response to sin: godly and worldly. The former works for our spiritual benefit. Godly sorrow produces repentance that leads to salvation without regret! The latter, though, is spiritually fatal. Worldly sorrow may appear on the surface like an appropriate and righteous response to sin. However, it doesn’t fan faith into flame and produce repentance that leads to salvation. It smothers faith and produces hopelessness and powerlessness that leads to death.

So how do we figure out which kind of grief we are experiencing? I think it’s pretty simple: we must determine why our has sin has made us sorrowful. What are we really grieving?

The chief concern of godly sorrow is God. The person who mourns sin rightly is the person who grieves over the way sin dishonors God and the way it fractures his or her fellowship with him. For example, let’s say a woman has been having an adulterous affair for a number of years but has recently decided to end the affair and confess to her husband and pastor. Though she is definitely sorrowful over the embarrassment this sin will bring on her and her family, her relationship with the Lord is what concerns her most. She hates that she has offended the One who loves her and delights to satisfy her with every good thing. She hates that she has fractured her fellowship with God. More than anything else, she longs to enjoy unhindered fellowship with him again. And this longing is what has driven her to confess her sin and put an end to it. Whatever the temporary consequences of her adultery might be—and they could be severe—she knows she can face them with the forgiving Christ by her side. This woman has experienced godly sorrow that produces repentance that leads to salvation without regret!

On the other hand, the chief concern of worldly sorrow is self. The person who mourns over sin wrongly is the person who grieves solely over the temporary consequences of sin. For example, let’s say a man who professes to be a Christian is caught in adultery. How his sin has affected his relationship with God does not concern him nearly as much as how it is going to impact his earthly relationships. He grieves over the tremendous embarrassment he has brought upon himself. He laments his soiled reputation. He can live with God’s displeasure toward him, but he can’t bear for others to see him for the man he really is! Swallowed up by his despair, he decides to quit his job, divorce his wife, and move across the country to start a new life. This man has experienced worldly grief over sin. His sorrow will never produce repentance that leads to salvation but only debilitating hopelessness that will lead to spiritual death—unless God intervenes.

And the good news is that God often intervenes! I speak from personal experience. There was a time in my Christian journey that I lost sight of God and was concerned only for my personal happiness. I hated the sins that were running rampant in my life—but only because of their adverse effects on my emotional state. I despised the dark and heavy feelings of guilt and shame that always followed a sinful act. I wasn’t so much concerned about loving and pleasing God as I was about just being happy (with or without Jesus!). I wallowed for a while in my worldly sorrow and made absolutely no progress toward real repentance. But God, in his great mercy, eventually revealed to me the ungodly nature of my grief. He gave me strength to pull my eyes away from myself and fix them again on him. And as I set my eyes on him (by reading and meditating on his Word), I began to feel great remorse and disgust over my sin because of the way it dishonored God and interrupted my fellowship with him. This godly sorrow produced exactly what Paul said it would: repentance that leads to salvation without regret!

If today you find yourself experiencing worldly, self-centered grief over your sin, I plead with you to open the Word of God, look in Christ’s direction, and pray that the Holy Spirit would give you the invaluable, life-producing gift of godly grief. And don’t stop looking and asking until he gives it!

Teach Us to Number Our Days

“So teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” – Psalm 90:12

Some may consider it a morbid thing to think regularly about death. But the Bible constantly directs our minds to the reality of our mortality. Why? Because thinking about our departure from this world leads to thinking about our entrance into eternity. And thinking about our entrance into eternity leads to thinking about our present manner of life. What are we putting our focus, time, and energy toward? Are we passionately pursuing the “things that are above” (Colossians 3:2)? Or are we consumed with transient, perishing things that are below?

Every Christian reading (and writing!) this article understands that his or her exit from this world is certain. But I think most of us would confess that we operate in this world as if our transition into eternity is not actually going to happen. Or, we think it’s so far away that we need not be that concerned about it today. So instead of pursuing and building up the “kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28), we build our own little kingdoms. We treasure our safety over Christ’s mission, our reputations over gospel proclamation, our financial security over his command to live generously—on and on we could go.

In Luke 12:16-20, Jesus told a parable about a man whom I fear might resemble many of us. This wealthy entrepreneur found all his meaning in his earthly business and all his comfort and security in his earthly goods. He said to his soul one night, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God came to him that same night and said, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

I don’t want to be like this man. I don’t want to live in a perpetual state of forgetfulness that I am going to see God face-to-face and give an account for how I lived my life. I want to be acutely aware of how brief my time in this world is and labor for the things that last! I want to believe the Word of God when it says man’s “days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone” (Psalm 103:15-16). I want to remember that I am merely “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James. 4:14). I want to “number [my] days that [I] may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

Wisdom believes what is true and responds to that truth accordingly. May God give us all a heart of wisdom that 1) believes the day when we will enter his eternal presence is quickly approaching, and 2) respond to that belief by living for the things that won’t be taken away from us when we are taken away from this world.