Sunday, September 12, 2010

Our Lives Might Look Bad, But…

This weekend I acted poorly and was distressed because of it. Paul’s words came alive for me with renewed profundity:

• “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7:18-24).

How true! “What a wretched man I am!” My only hope is in Christ and His righteousness – in His forgiveness and the free gift of life He bestows on those willing to trust in Him alone! But we get so tired of waiting for Him to do something – to rid us of our embarrassingly sinful impulses.

Some, however, regard these verses as describing Paul’s pre-Christ experience. Well, it does, but it also describes his post-Christ experience! Just look at Paul’s conclusion after his reconciliation to Jesus:

• “Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (Romans 7:25).

And this follows right after his praise of Jesus, suggesting that his bodily slavery to sin is a New Testament reality! While our minds have been set free to repent and to call upon the mercies of our Savior, sin’s powerful tentacles continue to so easily wrap around us. Elsewhere, Paul describes this excruciating post-Christ battle against sin, which we must endure:

• “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want” (Galatians 5:17).

But why does He make us wait so long? David complained about this very thing:

• “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (Psalm 13:1-6).

However, David also realized that his grief wasn’t the end of the story. He was assured that deliverance would come in God’s time:

• “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13:5-6).

But why wait at all? Jesus waited when He received a report that He had to come quickly because Lazarus was dying. In fact, He waited so long that, when He finally did arrive at Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days. In the process, many tears had been shed as disbelief set up its reign in the hearts of believers. When Mary saw Jesus, she lamented, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (John 11:32).

It was certainly not because of a lack of compassion that Jesus had delayed. In fact, He too wept at the mournful spectacle (11:35). Instead, it was for their benefit that He had delayed. He explained that it was to manifest “the glory of God” (John 11:4) so that His people might truly believe. Jesus therefore prayed:

• “I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me" (John 11:42).

In this busy world of ours, it is hard to recognize that Jesus is truly the “resurrection and the life.” We therefore need trials, especially those that refuse to budge, to remind us of our helplessness and His sufficiency (John 15:4-5). We only ask for directions when we know we’re lost. We need to know that we’re lost, helpless, and weak so that we’ll seek His strength (2 Cor. 12:9-10) and fasten our eyes on His glory (Hebrews 6:15; 1 Peter 1:7-8).

But aren’t we supposed to be new creations in Christ? Isn’t the church supposed to show forth His glory? It seems that something is going wrong! Well, there is a lot wrong with our lives, but in God’s eyes – and also in the eyes of those He opens -- there’s also a lot right (1 Cor. 6:11).

Balaam, the prophet-for-hire, was called upon by King Balak to curse Israel. However, God had warned Balaam that he could only pronounce those things that God would show him. What Balaam saw was absolutely incredible – Israel from God’s perspective and not the Israel that we see from the historical narrative. His eyes now open to spiritual realities, Balaam marveled,

• “He has not observed iniquity in Jacob, nor has He seen wickedness in Israel” (Numbers 23:21, NKJV).

This is a blatant contradiction of what other verses reveal about Israel, or is it? If this physical world is the only reality, then this is a contradiction. But if there is another reality, a transcendent one, then both portraits of Israel can be true.

In fact, the Bible is chocked full of these dual messages of our failure and our glory. After Paul criticizes the Corinthian church for their various condemnable sins, he assures them,

• “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).

I wasn’t that the Corinthians were sinless or even better people than the surrounding Gentiles – they weren’t (1 Cor. 1:26-29)! However, they had the sanctifying God in their midst, and this made them new creations, even if others didn’t see it.

We are shown the foibles of our Patriarchs and Lot, who had been living a compromised life in Sodom. Afterwards, his daughters got him drunk and had sex with him. But who could blame them after what he had done! He had tried to offer his precious virgin daughters to a ravenous mob (Gen. 19)! Nevertheless, this earthly reality wasn’t what ultimately defined Lot. Instead, God regarded him as “righteous” (2 Peter 2:7).

The examples of this strange and glorious duality cover the pages of Scripture. Just look at the examples of faith that Hebrews 11 highlights. They weren’t very exemplary in human terms, but our mysterious God is evidently thrilled with them. Here’s the lesson that we need to take away from these revelations. There’s more than what meets our eyes! Therefore, we mustn’t despair of ourselves or our church, but we must pry our eyelids open to see the greater reality – the reality that God sees.

But won’t this understanding take away our incentive to change? It didn’t Paul. He clearly saw both realities – his sin-infested flesh and his glorious God-given status – but he was arguably the hardest working missionary (1 Cor. 15:10). He realized that he was fated to be a “winner,” and he lived that way! By mourning over our earthly condition and rejoicing in our heavenly, we have been given a winning combination – in many respects!

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