Ephesians 3:19 – God cannot fill what is not empty

This year, my wife and I swore off soda.

Maybe you call it “pop” or – if you’re a Southerner – it’s a “Coke.” But it’s all the same thing, those highly sugared, carbonated drinks to which so many of us seem to be addicted.

We’re learning a lesson: When what is unhealthy gets jettisoned, what is healthy can take its place. So instead of soda, we’re drinking more water, milk, and juice, and feeling better for it.

To make room for good food, get rid of the junk.

As in the realm of the body, so it is in the realm of the spirit. Ephesians 3:19b is part of a larger prayer for holiness. In that verse, Paul prays for the Ephesians, that they will be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (NIV). In context, it’s clear that the sign of that fullness is the love of God “that surpasses knowledge” (v. 19a).

And yet…

How many of us are so filled up with the junk of this world that there is little room for God?

Television? Internet? Smart phones? Songs praising what we once considered shameful?

189795_glass_2_filling_with_waterThe media themselves are neutral. Each can be used to glorify God, yet is that their practical effect in our daily lives?  Does what we consume make us more sensitive to the voice of God or do our media choices make God seem more distant, more irrelevant?

The revival that broke out in 1970 on the campus of Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky was characterized above all by a deep sense of sin. When the holy presence of God fell upon the chapel service that February 3, students began with deep repentance confessing sins. Only then did they come to a joyous sense of both the forgiveness and fullness of God.

We say we want revival, that we hunger for the fullness of God in our hearts and lives. Yet how can God fill what is already cluttered with junk? Before we can know filling we must know emptying. We confess and God cleanses away!

God cannot fill what is not empty.

Many things that fill our lives we should not discard. They are wholesome and honor God. Yet harmful practices that distance us from the Lord must go if the Lord’s holy, loving presence would take their place.

These days, it takes courage to call sinful and damaging what the world labels fun and harmless. Yet that’s exactly the  kind of people God desires, one that – as necessary – will head north when all the world seems to be flocking south.

Are you filled with so much, yet strangely unsatisfied? It’s time to take inventory. God is calling each of us to confession and emptying so that God can fill us with Himself, the only one who can satisfy.

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Image: sxc.hu

Let’s talk about the “s” word

When did sin become the “s” word that we dare not speak?

This was not always so. There was a time when most believed that sin – disobedience to God’s law, whether through rebellion or neglect (1 John 3:4, James 4:17) – was a big deal. Sinning was stigmatized, a warning to others of its danger, like a sign on a power box: “Danger: High Voltage.” We believed it was the cryptonite that could bring any Superman to his knees. Do we still believe that?voltage

There are at least two devastating consequences of sin’s denial:

1. The denial of sin precludes the possibility of healing, leading to death.

In his sermon Original Sin, John Wesley urged: “Know your sickness, know your cure.” Salvation in Scripture is a solution to a problem. But if we think there is no problem, then we won’t seek a solution.

One of the most painful reality T.V. shows to watch is Intervention. In one episode, a young woman addicted to methamphetamine takes the drug regularly, admitting no downside to her habit. Yet she is blind to the way it is controlling her life, putting her job in jeopardy and straining her relationship with those who love her most. Recovery only came when her family staged an intervention and she was willing to admit: “I’m an addict, and I need help.”

Likewise, the Good News of Jesus’ death only makes sense if we first acknowledge the bad news of our sinful predicament. Each of us must come to the place where we acknowledge that we are the worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15, NIV). Only when the illness is diagnosed and we accept Scripture’s dismal diagnosis will we be ready to seek the Great Physician for a remedy.

Sometimes death is presented only as what happens when we breathe our last. Yet sin is so poisonous that it begins to diminish the present vitality of those who deny its presence. In John 10:10, Jesus warns about the “thief” that has come to “steal, kill and destroy” (CEB). Sin gives us death on the installment plan, a progressive choking off of our life here-and-now. The end result is utter darkness, devoid of hope and without God (Matt. 25:30, Galatians 6:8). Conversely, to confess our sin is the first step toward the full recovery God wishes for each of us (1 John 1:9), a clean heart and a fresh start.

2. The denial of sin destroys community.

One of the devil’s biggest lies is often repeated: “No one else is getting hurt.” But is this true? Before the cheating spouse is unmasked, he or she may be convinced that an extramarital dalliance is harmless, not a sin but an innocent pleasure. Yet when the affair is exposed, the fallout is no less devastating. Like a priceless vase shattered into a hundred pieces, trust can only be painstakingly glued back together. Even then, the fissures are obvious, the beauty marred.

The epitome of beauty marred is Fantine, Victor Hugo’s pitiful character in Les Misérables. Her own indiscretion of conceiving a child out of wedlock is compounded by the sin of others who move beyond stigmatizing to self-righteous victimizing, chasing her from her factory job, forcing her to resort to prostitution to support her daughter, Cosette. In the 2012 film adaptation of the novel, Anne Hathaway sings “I dreamed a dream,” dripping with pathos:

“I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living,
So different now from what it seemed…
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed…”

Fantine is alone and broken. Her own sin could have been forgiven and overcome if she had experienced the power of grace demonstrated through others. Instead, the blindness of her fellow employees to the sinfulness of their gossip and their subsequent shunning of one they judge to be disgraced dramatically fractures community. Whether it is the denial of sin by an individual or the tolerance of corporate sin by the community at-large, it is the community itself that is destroyed.

Only in this light does the radical action of Peter toward Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 make any sense. When they sold their land and secretly kept back part of the money for themselves, Peter confronted them. Since the couple had lied about what they had done, Peter became the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit, pronouncing judgment: “You have not lied to people, but to God” (Acts 5:4, CEB). For the Christian community to sweep sin under the carpet would have guaranteed the church’s demise. Peter knew that the denial of sin destroys community.

Conclusion

In the 21st century, the Church faces many challenges. The culture in North America particularly seems to be growing intolerant of the “s” word. Yet Scripture and experience both remind us that only when we acknowledge our sin can God’s forgiveness flow. Isn’t it time we talk about the “s” word?

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Photo credit: Creative Safety Supply

The Fact of Sin: Reflections from Henry Fairlie

Henry Fairlie

I like the book of James. When given a choice in Greek 3 which New Testament book to translate, James was my pick. Its poetic expressions in the King James Version fired  my imagination, phrases like “perfect law of liberty” (1:25).

One can hardly address law from a Christian perspective without dealing with the concept of sin. When we become aware of God’s law, we automatically realize that we are lawbreakers, or sinners. This is apparent from the classical Wesleyan definition of sin as a “willful transgression of a known law of God “(see 1 John 3:4).

This essay is the first in a series of reflections on sin. To help focus our thoughts, we will dialogue with Henry Fairlie’s The Seven Deadly Sins Today (Notre Dame Press, 1978). Fairlie (1924-1990) was British by birth but spent much of his adult life in the United States as an essayist and journalist. He wrote for various publications, including the National Review and was fond of informal debate with the late Christopher Hitchens.

Henry Fairlie, a non-theologian who called himself a “reluctant unbeliever” (p. 6), entitles chapter 1 “The Fact of Sin.” Let us examine three subjects he raises in the chapter by answering these questions:

1) What is “sin” ?

2) What are the “seven deadly sins”?

3) Can psychiatry explain the reality of evil?

As we look at how Fairlie responded to these questions, it is hoped that we will gain greater insight into ourselves and each other. More importantly, we will more deeply appreciate how God’s saving and cleansing grace is the only solution to our sinful predicament.

What is “sin” ?

Fairlie describes sin in several ways. Simply put, sin entails “lapses in our conduct” (p. 3). More insightfully, he calls sin “an act of infidelity and not only of disobedience”; it is the act of “a traitor and not only of a criminal” (p. 9).

To be a sinner is to be a traitor. Scripture resonates with this, from when Adam and Eve betrayed God in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22). Sin as betrayal underscores the relational nature of sin: “Sin is the destruction of one’s self as well as one’s relationships with others” (p. 4). When we ask ” Who is it hurting?” we are asking only a rhetorical question. Do we really want an answer? If we are honest, we will admit that by its very nature, sin is never solitary. Its painful consequences touch both God and other human beings. Accordingly, Fairlie (pp. 17-18) explains his reason for writing the essays in The Seven Deadly Sins Today :

They are written from the conviction that, as individuals and societies, we are trifling with the fact that sin exists, and that its power to destroy us is as great as ever; from the belief that much of the fecklessness and triviality, dejection and faintheartedness, wasting and corruption, which we now feel around us, in our personal lives but also in our common lives, have their source exactly where we do not choose to look.

Henry Fairlie accepts the concept of original sin – that we have inherited a “tendency” or “inclination” to evil from Adam and Eve – as long as this concept never becomes a reason to deny moral responsibility for our own actions. He clarifies (p. 19):

We will recognize that the inclination to evil is in our natures, that its existence in us presents us with moral choices, and that it is in making those choices that we form our characters. We may be given our natures, but we make our characters; and it if is in our natures to do evil, it can and ought to be in our characters to resist it. When we say that someone is a “good man” or ” good woman,” we do not mean that they are people from whom the inclination to do evil is absent, but that they are people who have wrestled and still wrestle with it.

Having tipped his hat to original sin, Fairlie (too optimistically) refuses to connect the dots. For him, sin is a “lapse,”  as if sin is an anomaly in our behavior. Yet Christian theology affirms the opposite. Sin is not a “lapse” but a symptom of a sickness. If we have better moments, these are but a reflection of God at-work in the lives of all through the influence of the Holy Spirit, what Wesleyans call “prevenient grace.” Even in the believer, what is good in me is most decidedly not me; rather, it is Christ shining out from me! All glory returns to God, who alone deserves it.

Nonetheless, Fairlie is correct when he insists that sin is not merely individual; it has corporate elements. It is not only persons that sin. Societies are also capable of sin (p. 25). It will be interesting to see if he applies this insight as he takes up the seven deadly sins in the remaining chapters of his book.

Continue reading “The Fact of Sin: Reflections from Henry Fairlie”

Love? Absolutely, but what does love require?

The essence of the Christian faith is love. Rarely, however, do we ask: And what does love require? Jesus answered this question not with a sermon but through his actions. He showed us what love requires during an instructive encounter with a woman unfaithful to her marriage vows (John 8:1-11).  The religious authorities brought her before the Lord. They demanded: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (v.5, ESV).

The reader hardly needs John’s explanation in v.6 to understand that this was a trap. Their target was not the hapless harlot but the teacher whose growing popularity they envied. They knew that if Jesus excused her action that de facto he would be setting aside the seventh commandment, a serious charge against any rabbi. On the other hand, if he concurred with the punishment that these scribes and Pharisees were only too willing to carry out, his popularity with the people would take a major hit. After all, hadn’t Jesus said that his “yoke” was “easy” and his “burden” was “light” (Matthew 11:29)? Yet agreeing with their decision would appear to undercut that claim, joining him to those who specialized in piling up laws and interpretations. In the eyes of the common person, Jesus might go from “one of us” to “one of them.”

Continue reading “Love? Absolutely, but what does love require?”