The wasted virtue of self denial


When Oscar Wilde said that “Selfdenial is the shining sore on the leprous body of Christianity” he could easily have observed almost any professing Christian in any age or place who mistakenly believe their abstinence was the key that unlocked all the blessings of heaven. In Matthew’s, “proof text” for Christian self-denial there is a preposition that is often overlooked in practice and lifestyle that is responsible for spiritual leprosy.

The preposition Wildes’ lepers have ignored is in Matthew 10:39, “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it“: or “because of me“.

There is no gain or merit in a life of self denial, strict discipline, adherence, stoicism, charitable works and the like outside of Christ. If the sacrifice in possession, place or relationship is done now to manipulate or bargain a greater inheritance in eternity, then it will fail. We cannot merit grace. We cannot earn God’s favor.

Rather, if, in the pursuit of Christ, to gain more of him, to know him, love him, serve him or to, in the John Edwards sense, deepen my affectation for him, by him and to him, I suffer some loss here and now in relationships, recognition or reward that will be to my eternal gain. For though I may have lost those things I gained Christ. He is my exceeding great reward; to know him and to experience the power that was at work in his resurrection in my life; that is a true and elegant sufficiency.

The call is not to suffer for sufferings sake as though by my suffering I repay part of an impossible debt. It is a rejoinder that as you suffer “because of me” you are, in fact, finding your life not losing it. Don’t seek to suffer, but when it comes receive it gladly “because of me” and rejoice in the eternal life that Christ has given. Self denial is a wasted virtue because so many think that through their efforts, they achieve or earn God’s gift. “I have suffered so I deserve better.” When that is your posture you are seeking your life on your terms and you only have loss waiting for you. Write it all off for the sake of Christ and gain everything.

Looking at Spiritual Growth as if through a matrix

You think that’s air that you’re breathing? 😉

Sometimes the business of spiritual growth is a bit of an intangible, unobtainable, clichéd carrot on a stick that religious elites use to chastise the unenlightened. Or so it might seem.

Have a look again at that passage in Galatians 5:16-26, this time check it out through a lens of biblical theology (i.e. the repeated and progressive unfolding of God’s revelation in the Bible) and see if some of the pieces start to fall in place. Biblical spirituality is not some aloof, monastic experience. It’s a bread and wine thing – something you can eat and drink in real life. But, if you can swallow the red pill for a second and take another look, you might see how the entire Bible points us towards this.

Consider the growth of a child – those around the child notice the child’s growth. The child is not conscious of their growth though – but it is happening. Growth is organic, it not constructed.

Growth is slow and growth is permanent. Except for the mysterious case of Benjamin Button, once you grow, you don’t get younger.

However your externals do change. Your preferences for clothing fashions, the cars you drive, houses you live in – all of these change according to your tastes, the environment, condition of the economy etc. However, if all you have are Spiritual externals, then you are going to fluctuate and go back and forth and up and down.

Eventually you are going to fail completely to keep up that external appearance and our true nature and it’s inevitable works of the flesh will be manifested and we will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Instead, we must turn, repent, and come under the influence of the Holy Spirit – not the external, impotent efforts of our flesh.

A. Conduct – v.16
A command is spoken by God intended to create true life – Spiritual life.

B. Conflict – v.17
The man of flesh, the first Adam rebels against God’s Spirit – conflict results

C. Construction – v.19-21a
The man of flesh wants to create his own law and ascend to God on his own terms. In fact, he wants to take the place of God.

D. Consequence – v.21b
God tests man’s law and it fails. Instead of being a true law of righteousness it leads follows into the wilderness of disobedience where they perish because of their unbelief and rejection of God’s Spirit.

C`. Cultivation – v.22-23
The man of Spirit – the second Adam, produces the fruit from the tree of life which fulfills God’s law and writes God’s law onto our hearts and transforms us from the inside out.

B`. Crucifixion – v.24
The man of Spirit – responds to the conflict of the man of flesh and defeats him through a substitutionary death. For it is not behaviour change that redeems and transforms the man of flesh – but death to sin and new life in Christ.

A`. Conduct – v.25-26
Those risen with Christ – alive in the Spirit are the only ones able to live in God’s covenant and enjoy the life of righteousness. Which is evident in worship, fellowship with Jesus Christ.

Have you experienced the “matrix?”

Some related posts:
How are you growing?
Book Review of The Bible Matrix
When did the Reformation stop… for you?

How does Spiritual Growth work?

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little process to follow? A list of rules and regulations to keep or obey that somehow guaranteed my spiritual growth in Christ and resulted in God loving and accepting me for having achieved perfection (or at the very least, given it a red-hot go!)?

Galatians 5:16-26 is a passage of New Testament scripture that discusses “the fruit of the Spirit.” Here, in a neat little summary, is both the method and result of spiritual growth in Christ.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

1st thing I noticed when I read this is the chiastic pattern these verses follow. This aids our interpretation of the verses and provides a picture of how God The Holy Spirit works in our life to produce life and spiritual fruitfulness.

A chiasm is a literary device that helps us see the structure of the flow of thought. He starts and ends with “walking” a way of referring to their “conduct”, or way of life. In the middle is a pivotal warning about – “inheriting the kingdom of God.” This tells us the importance of this discussion and the consequences if we get this wrong. This is how I outlined the passage:

A. Conduct – v.16
…..B. Conflict – v.17
……….C. Construction – v.19-21a
……………D. Consequence – v.21b
……….C`. Cultivation – v.22-23
…..B`. Crucifixion – v.24
A`. Conduct – v.25-26

The basic, big idea of this passage, is that your spiritual growth in Christ isn’t caused by improving your behaviour or knowledge. It comes from and is caused by the Holy Spirit himself working in you.

He starts it, he continues it, he finishes it.

He does this by applying the work of Jesus Christ to you. All the benefits and rewards due to Jesus for his obedience to the Father are made yours. They are transferred to you through your adoption into God’s family when you turn away from self effort to save you and trust only in Jesus Christ.

Essentially, to fulfill and obey the command to “walk by the Spirit” you need the life of and from the Spirit. The consequence of not having the Spirit is exclusion from the kingdom of God.

God says, you can’t operate under the control, influence and power of the law and of the Holy Spirit at the same time. They are mutually exclusive.

If you operate on the level of the flesh – you are focused totally on external appearance.

Everything about you becomes an effort to save face, to make sure that people dress suitably, talk suitably, sing suitably, pray suitably. Anything that represents a flaw or a failure must be concealed. Any change or any aberration from the accepted norm must not be tolerated.

As you do that, you will suppress and internalize the true nature of your sin and the result of this effort is the worst condition and deepest depravity of human nature.

The way through to Spiritual life and Spiritual growth is not by constructing rules, morals and external processes that give the appearance or imitation of life – attempts to constrain the flesh and repress something that will not be contained and does not bring us closer to God.

The way to Spiritual life is through death. Death must come before resurrection. Without resurrection we are not remade in the image of Jesus and have no share in the righteousness of God through him.

All our attempts to build a culture of exclusivity will indeed meet their purpose – we will be excluded from God’s life, and kingdom forever.

But, if we are led by the Spirit, then we are able to walk by the Spirit.

As we walk by the Spirit, following the revelation of God in scripture, then we will not gratify the desires of our flesh to build morals, systems, processes, to please God.

We please God, when we die to self, crucify the passions and desires of our flesh to save face and look good in front of others and we live under the influence, power and control of the Holy Spirit.

As we saturate our lives with the heart and mind of God revealed in scripture (letting it dwell in us richly) – we are filled with the Holy Spirit and will give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The fruit of the Spirit is the natural outcome of the Holy Spirit being at work in us and among us.

Are you led by the Spirit or by the flesh?

What is Biblical Spirituality

From Tim Chester via The Resurgence:

Spirituality has come to be about solitude, calm, silence.

In reality, though, this is spirituality for the well-off. It’s only for those who can afford to go on retreat or have space in their home where they can be quiet. It won’t work for the single mother in a small apartment. It won’t work for the migrant worker who goes to work at six in the morning. It’s not urban spirituality. And it’s not biblical spirituality

Biblical spirituality is about:

* Bible meditation, not mystical silence
* Passionate engagement, not rural retreat
* Growing together, not individual solitude

In other words, biblical spirituality, at its core, is about the word of God, the mission of God, and the community of God.

Called to be holy

1 Corinthians is a good section of scripture to introduce our faith in Christ and identity as Christians. The first few chapters deal with basic questions about how faith begins, how it grows and deepens and also about how it endures.

The word “call” features frequently in Chapter 1. We are called by God, called into Christ and called to glorify Him. There is a bit of a parallel to the Old Testament story of the Exodus playing out here as well. God called his people, rescued them from slavery and provided them the means to extend and endure as an example and messenger to the other nations. Problem is, they messed up big time in following through and provided a distorted picture of God and despite numerous warnings to turn back (i.e. this makes up the bulk of the OT) they chose to be stubborn and ignorant.

Likewise today, God calls to us with the gospel, rescues us from the slavery and penalty of sin and provides the means to extend and endure as examples and messengers to others. But we continually act stubbornly and selfishly and need reminding of our calling.

One of the problems with the issue of personal holiness (sanctification) is, like Whitefield said, we try to do things backwards. We think that our behaviour sanctifies us. If I behave like this, I become more holy, closer to God etc. If I pray, go to Church, get involved in a ministry then my prayer will be answered and I’ll live in victory and success. THEN when this doesn’t happen we blame God, try to bargain with God or worse try to bribe or force God to comply with our wishes and when that doesn’t work we drop out!

Jesus calls these type of people ‘self-righteous’ and calls them to repent. You are God-belittling & self exalting and you boast in yourself and not in Jesus and his gospel of the cross.

Our desire and motivation to live in submission to God’s word comes from our love and joy in Christ. Not to earn it, but to celebrate it! Absence of sanctification should cause self-examination. Why do we lack desire to live in obedience to Christ? Perhaps we have not yet received his love? “examine yourselves to see whether you be in the faith”, “work out your faith with fear and trembling”.

Messages such as, “If you do this, that, bad thing you need to repent and be a good person” or “Good people listen to this type of music, watch these types of movies (or don’t watch them at all!)”, “Good men are good husbands/better men/better fathers”, “Good people don’t get drunk, don’t sleep around etc” is really nothing more than Moralistic Deism (code for religious nut) or a legalistic attempt at sanctification without justification, i.e earning or working to try and earn God’s approval. This is no different to any works based religion.

Sometimes Christians say, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Christianity is not about being moral for the sake of being moral. It is not about behaving “appropriately” because that’s what’s considered acceptable. Christianity is about experiencing freedom and authenticity because of the generosity of God in and through a worship relationship with Jesus Christ. The Bible term for that is “grace”. By it’s very definition, “Grace” is something that is undeserved, unmerited, and unconditional. If God said, I’ll forgive your sin and welcome you into my family IF you also do this, this and this – That’s NOT GRACE!

God’s grace is so powerful that it will transform your entire life. It’s not a smorgasbord buffet service that gives you a free ticket to heaven. It will affect your thinking, attitude, speech, behaviour, friendships, ethics, sense of self and sacrifice. It doesn’t just give you a coat of paint, it permeates your entire life and enriches you with new spiritual life.

We live, empowered by the Spirit of God because he has set us apart from the rest of the world and placed us into Jesus Christ and given us the title of saints. That is what personal holiness is all about.