Friday, February 17, 2012

Three Difficult Words

Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 17 Feb 2012
"So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature." (Gal 3:16)

How do we distinguish the differences between living in the flesh and living in the Spirit? In this article, I want to deal with three difficult words that will shed light over the nuances and subtle differences between flesh and Spirit.

1) 'Concerns' vs 'Worries'

Last week's edition in Sabbathwalk deals largely with the question: "Is worry a sin?" In that article, I argue that we do not need to rush to label all worries as sin. However, behind every worry, there is sin lurking nearby. Distinguishing legitimate concerns from unhelpful worries can be a tricky thing. There are no easy formulas.

One of the most popular gospel stories about a worry is the story of Mary and Martha. In that incident, Martha was busy rushing to get things done inside the house. The presence of a distinguished guest only made it worse. It came to the point that she could not take it anymore. She had to pressure Jesus to tell Mary off.

"But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, 'Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" (Luke 10:40)
Instead, Jesus responded:
"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:41-42)
In this case, note Jesus' comment about 'many things.' One sign in which a genuine concern has deteriorated to unhelpful worry is the pervasiveness of it all. One thing leads to another. Instead of focusing and keeping things in perspective, Martha has allowed the need to get things done to dominate her thinking and feeling. Worse of it all, Martha has allowed worry over chores become more important than her relationship with her sister. Just think about it. Instead of talking nicely to Mary, Martha performs a double-whammy. She uses a third-party (Jesus) to communicate to her sister. She refuses to call her sister by name. When one becomes frustrated to the point of putting tasks above relationships, something has gone out of whack!

Paul writes to the Romans as follows:
"that we should no longer be slaves to sin." (Rom 6:6)
As long as we are in the flesh, we sin. As long as we are sinners, we are slaves to sin. Is our 'concern' or 'worry' enslaving us? If it is, disregard the semantics. The flesh can easily transform a 'concern' into a 'worry,' and 'worry' into an endless cycle of anxiety and distrust. Joanna Weaver gives us some tips about distinguishing concerns from worries. She says that concerns tend to be on a legitimate problem, while worries often hype up unfounded cares. Concerns are specific but worries are fleeting. Concerns address the real problems while worries is 'obsessed' about the problem. For Christians, the biggest marker is WHO we are directing our concerns toward. Are we directing it to God? Are we directing it to self-wisdom?

2) 'Confident-in-Self' vs 'Confidence-in-God'

We can either continue to live in the flesh or to live in the Spirit. We have to choose. Not choosing it is already a choice of the flesh. One question that I like to ask is when is 'self-control' a legitimate one? My SabbathWalk article this week talks about the character of spiritual leadership. Apparently, one of my readers have pointed out that the table that I quoted from J. Oswald Sanders tends to be oversimplified. The disagreement is over the flesh-led 'self-confidence' versus a Spirit-inspired 'confident in God.' What I have failed to include is that Sanders is comparing and contrasting the 'differences' between natural and spiritual leadership. He is not directly throwing away the baby with the bathwater. Sanders acknowledges that while everyone of us has a natural ability to become a leader, spiritual leaders do not REMAIN in their natural skills. They progress to becoming more led by the Spirit more and more. At the same time, they become less reliant on the cleverness of the flesh. This is the crux of spiritual leadership that is confident in God.

Self-confidence is a tricky thing. I understand that there are legitimate desires to do something well. Yet, many Christians begin well but fail to end well. When we are confident in self, we may start well. We may not end well. Instead, we may end up prideful about our competencies. Worse, we may end up attributing all achievements to a humanistic glory rather than acknowledging that we have accomplished so much because God has first enabled me and blessed me with skills.

This is the case of the Babylonian ruler, King Nebucchanezzar during the times of Daniel. See how self-deception engulfs the arrogant king.

"The king reflected and said, ‘Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?’" (Dan 4:30)
God humbles the proud but elevates the humble. The choice is not ours but God's. Self-confidence in the flesh, directly or indirectly, puts the self on the throne, and uses the name of God for self-fulfillment.

Jesus says:
"For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 14:11)
The great English preacher, Charles H. Spurgeon says it well:

"Humility is a right estimate of one's self."

3) 'Self-Control:' Flesh or Spirit?

The third thing about the flesh and the Spirit is about who is sitting on our throne. Is it us or is it God? This is admittedly a tough one. From Paul's letter to the Romans, we see how sin controls us. Sin tries to master us (Rom 6:14). Sin enslaves us to make us serve its whims and fantasies (Rom 6:16,19). Sin remains in the flesh (Rom 7:18). Sin ties to disturb our spiritual contentment in God with an unholy discontent in keeping the law (Rom 7:23). We can only be set free when we confess we need help (Rom 7:24).

What is even more confusing is that self-control is labeled a fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5:23. The Greek word 'egkrateia' means mastery of the self. It is refusing to let the flesh control us, and to let the Spirit of God lead us, willingly and lovingly.

Self-control in the flesh has to do with the reverse. Instead of mastery of self, it unwittingly allows self to become master and dictator of the flesh. One simple way to discover this is the age-old saying: "Only time will tell." Indeed, spiritual things do not always happen at an instant. King Saul started well, but ended tragically when he set himself higher than God. When sin is in control, it aims for the next level: Cruise control. In other words, sin is like a Trojan horse, entering our bodies and minds with an innocent premise. When the time is right, it will grow and take control over our complete selves. White becomes black after multiple layers of gray.

Norm Wakefield teaches us the need to be connected to the Spirit. He writes:

"One of the most important aspects of this new you is the way your Spirit has been connected to the Spirit of our Lord. The power to confront the sin in our flesh resides in this new, mighty, invincible power that has been bonded to our spirit. So now we can begin to understand our Lord's strategy. He doesn't change our flesh; rather, he unites our spirit with a force that is greater than the evil force in our flesh. His intention is to defeat this persistent power by bringing a new greater power through our spirit. A crucial key is to discover how to join forces with the Spirit of God in a way that allows his unlimited power to be unleashed against the enemy that occupies our flesh." (Norm Wakefield, Who Gives a Rip About Sin?, Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002, 97)
When we see 'self-control' in terms of who is behind the wheel, we can understand who is in control. We all like to be steering the wheel ourselves. There is a saying that if Jesus is sitting in the front of our cars next to us, swap seats! Let Jesus do the driving.

When we live in the flesh, we indoctrinate ourselves into thinking that it is all about us. When we live in the Spirit, we humbly acknowledge that it is all about God. Flesh will continue to war against the Spirit. We have to choose. Even for those who have confessed Jesus as Lord, they are still living in the flesh.

Christian Spirituality is how we allow the Spirit of God change us from behind to become more Christlike.  Fleshly control not only refuses to cede control to God. The flesh seeks to put itself on the throne, and unwittingly becomes victims of the devilish forces of darkness and deception. William Farley makes this insightful comment in his recent book, Gospel-Power Humility.

".. the proud man thinks he is humble, but the humble man thinks he is proud." (William P. Farley, Gospel-Powered Humility, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2011, p26)

Be careful. Many activities start off honourably with a declaration that they are serving God. Eventually, they end up becoming a self-serving enterprise.


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