Just from Sin and Self to Cease

by Alexei Laushkin

One of my favorite hymns is ‘Tis so Sweet to Trust in Jesus.‘ Surprisingly simple and to the point. A fairly simple refrain too: ‘O for grace to trust Him more,’ and ‘Jesus, Jesus, how I trust him.’

Trust, love, grace.

Dwelling and being. Simple, straightforward, almost childlike. Not like a meaty hymn or things that are equally true of God, but just pure and to the point and life giving if we take the time to dwell in it. Consider Matthew 18:3:

And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

There’s something about the life of faith that has the quality of simplicity, peace, rest, and non-complexity. A profound beauty that enters into our lives of chaos and busyness and says-be still. That says to us in a decisive way, no not these things, but these things.

You see that’s what the delight and joy of children do to you. They point out your world and invite you into theirs. Theirs which is a simple, pure, delight in being in your presence, or playing outside, or just finding something funny, as if for the very first time. As a busy adult, entering into the life of a child, is jarring and very freeing. Try it sometime.

You’ll find a simplicity that pushes back against the complexities of life that to often determine the pace of our days as adults.

It’s echoed best in these lines from the hymn:

Just from Jesus simply taking
Life and rest, and joy and peace.

Taking life, taking rest, taking joy, taking peace. It’s almost like entering into the quality of the beauty and refreshment of what it must have been like when the world was first made. Those early days in the garden. We’d want to lose ourselves in that kind of peace and wonder.

That kind of peace is an aspect of faith. It’s the aspect less tied to sin and more tied to self.

Open to New Possibilities 

Turning from self is perhaps one of the most difficult disciplines and dilemmas that Christians have faced in every age, but is particularly poignant today.

The American life is filled with kinds of promises, kinds of means of salvation, kinds of good news. If you work hard, play by the rules, you should be given a chance at a good life. It’s a great promise, but when it becomes an idol it really can drive things in unfortunate ways.

God’s presence entering into our lives can sometimes feel like a strong wind. Think of how God used the wind to part the Red Sea.The work of the kingdom can feel like a great wind, drawing us from our own-selves and complexity into something entirely different.

One response to this wind is to be overwhelmed, another response is a kind of childlike awe. That quality of humble delight is often much better suited for those moments where we are being pushed beyond our comfort zone into something much healthier.

This requires a different inner expectation. An expectation open to new possibilities, open to how God might use the circumstances of our lives for purposes we didn’t really fully imagine for ourselves. That’s an aspect of living by faith too.

God invites us to sit at his feet like Mary, to learn of his ways, to understand his purposes, to enter into the mystery which was the life of Paul’s, the mystery which was the revelation given to the Apostle John, of God working with us in real time, and making himself known to us in simple, small, but steady ways.

Like Moses encountering God at the burning bush, he didn’t know the God who would work through him to rescue God’s people out of Egypt, or the God that would speak with him as a friend, the intimacy and trust wasn’t there yet. Before Moses could speak to God and had his face shine brightly from the encounter, he had the bush. And the God of that burning bush began to re-orient Moses.

Moses needed a faith that was open to his expectations of his life changing. God met him as he was and gave signposts as he worked with Moses.

And the aspect of faith that is ok with change, is childlike.

It’s the simply taking, life, joy, and rest from God. It’s one way we know God is with us, God as Emmanuel, being open to our plans and ideas changing, because God is anchoring down the aspects of us that need anchoring for the journey ahead.

This hymn like the last one I covered, is just a profound and simple reminder, how trust and re-orienting ourselves to the living God produces some marvelous moments of joy and peace. And that childlike pleasure in the love a child has for his parent is available to us in the faith.

That’s also an aspect of journeying. Just enjoying who God is and how he works. A relief from the weights and toils and a foretaste of the kingdom.

Alexei Laushkin is Vice-President of the Evangelical Environmental Network,  a Board Member of the Kingdom Mission Society,  and writer of the Foolishconfidence blog. His views are his own. 

 

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Inward Alienation

This emptiness which was formed in him as a result of falling away from God, kindles in him an incessant craving that nothing can satisfy. This craving is vague but constant (St. Theophan the Recluse).

That times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you– even Jesus (Acts 3:19-20).

The hunger for fullness and the reality of Jesus. How many times in the gospels is it recorded that Jesus went out of his way to personally touch and heal. Recount the hemorrhaging woman, recount the blind man, how many times does the encounter include a deeply personal and holy interaction.

We live in a time where intimacy is too tied in with sensuality. When the sort of intimacy that Jesus brings is wrapped in light as with a garment, its covered in holiness, its filled with whole love, a love that brings us more fully into who we are. This love takes us more deeply into ourselves, when we encounter it we feel more fully human. We become like Moses at the burning bush or the Apostle Peter at the Mt. of Transfiguration. We know we are seeing something holy and we give way to what is before us.

Inward Alienation

Perhaps the hardest thing to heal for each of us is inward alienation. An alienation born by sins of the flesh, the world, and the devil. An alienation born of trying circumstances, a lack of stability in our closest relating, an alienation born of our own pride and inability to seek the good and our own deep woundedness and the wounds of others. Consider Henri Nouwen on his journey towards wholeness “This place had always been there. I had always been aware of it as the source of grace. But I had not been able to enter it and truly live there.”

Nouwen saw the vision of wholeness in Rambrandt’s the Prodigal Son in the kind and loving embrace of the Father. A moment of profound blessing and love in the middle of ruin and sin. The Father is like the Holy Trinity reaching out to us in the midst of our pain and misery and turning, as we doubt as if to say ‘is this too good to be true’ the Trinity says ‘blessing, wholeness, fullness, life.’

Consider the gospel of Luke on this moment “his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

Les Miserables moves us for similar reasons. Especially towards the end of the story, to find love and grace and to end one’s striving in holy love moves us deeply. It is our most natural desire, its what orients us at times, to find some peace for the inward alienation.

But being moved by these stories and seeing it from afar is not the same thing as dwelling and inhabiting holy love whether in our love for God (more common) or even in a particular relationship (less common).

So what helps us heal our self-alienation. As St. Theophan puts it our constant but vague craving? How do we like the children of Israel enter the land of milk and honey.

If we try and go into that land or that place of healing before God is ready for us or the dynamics are good, we will easily fail.

So what is the way forward? How do we start? Consider these words of scripture:

Be holy, because I am holy (1 Peter 16).

The pursuit of God and seeking first the kingdom not only in pious practices (prayers, scripture, and worship), but practices that overflow into our actions and relating (mercy, forgiveness, compassion, self-control) build the muscles and lay, all of these lay, the groundwork for the healing of self-alienation. But in and of themselves these practices and actions are insufficient for the healing to begin. It is grace. The free gift of God acting in each of us and in particular relationships that establish this level of closeness in our relating with God or with a particular person.

When we are inwardly alienated what stability can be used to heal this? What dynamics can the Trinity work with when we are so easily tossed like the seas, one day pursuing God, the next pursuing the world, the next pursuing our favorite team, the next trying the next fade, and so on and so on. Or if we are like the elder son, lulled to sleep in the service of the Lord. We neither experience the full embrace of the Father, but simply experience a dullness in our faith. A dullness which leads to slackness and sin as full and entangling as that of the younger son. Without vibrancy we don’t have much to stand on in our journey towards Christ.

The sure fire method and approach is to cultivate a soft heart. A heart that grieves fully over ones own sin. If we are the younger sin we must focus our efforts on repentance, realizing the extreme danger we are in. To repeat the Jesus prayer often is one method to cajole the heart ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner.’

If we are the elder son we have much work to do because we have already disregarded our Father’s house. The elder son may begin with habits that are hard for his pride to bear, such as regular prayer (praying the holy hours for instance), humility, repentance that leads to tears. If the older son in us can be humbled and God grants the gift of tears than surely salvation has visited his inner abode and the path towards amendment of life can begin. We should not forget that we are to persevere to the end and not easily give up, especially if our heart is already hardened, in good time our gracious Father will give us a right spirit instead of a heart of stone.

The gospel is not just partial good news. It’s not merely a set of beliefs, it’s beliefs that are fully embodied and dwelt in. The children of Israel weren’t just given a land they were told to dwell in the land. Consider the words of the Psalms “dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness” (Psalm 37:3). It’s not a simple possession but a full embodied dwelling therein.

The only type of thing that truly heals our inward alienation is for our inner desires and our orientation to move towards something that’s much more full. Again St. Theophan on this point:

Every feature of the divine order condemns and rebukes him with his former unreasonableness and carelessness. This impresses him all the more because, at the same time, his spirit sees the obvious insignificance of the former sinful order, which deserves his contempt. By this action the heart is released from its former bondage and becomes free.

This freedom and character than takes work to mold. This is but the beginning of repentance. Repentance is followed by the pursuit of holiness, the fully taking off of sin (lust for money, power, significance, other people, selfishness) and replaced by actions commended by Jesus himself (mercy towards those who have specifically wronged you, compassion towards those in dire circumstances, love for those who also pursue the Lord fully, self-control to not be bothered and perturbed when one encounters sin, peacefulness of heart which guides every moment).

As this builds the dull ache changes. Instead we find joy ineffable. We find holiness. At times the gift of a spiritual brother or sister who can be closer to us than our very hearts because there is holiness and wholeness in the inner chambers and recesses of our soul is given.

Here we can can find peace and true rest which enables creative love and kingdom fruit. At such points it will be said of us he has acquired peace in himself and look how those around him flock to find that peace as well.

On Forgiveness

If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. (John 20:23)

These are words of life. Not just words that express some ideal, these are words to put the nature of sin in oneself to death by. We are to be marked by mercy, by grace, by our forgiveness.

When we begin to delve deeply into this passage on forgiveness we begin to feel the weight of our obligation before God and each other. As we dig into this passage, we can no longer carry the words that we are more prone to carry. Words of indifference. The indifference that characterized the grave act of sin between Cain and Abel, when Cain murdered his brother, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’

We realize that in the new reality, the new covenant, the life that starts and finishes with the author of life,  forgiveness is not a concept to just be past over. Left for the unskilled and the uninterested parts of our life to attend to.

When Jesus says to ‘seek first the kingdom of God,’ he means seek first, make it of primary importance. The first thing you think about when you rise, the last thing when you sleep, and in the countless moments throughout the day orient your lives towards God and God’s ways. If you try you’ll find how hard it is to live this life, and it will drive you to repentance and from repentance and mourning into the grace of his forgiveness. When we experience that kind of forgiveness we dare not hold the debts against those who have sinned against us. We forgive and repent so that no root of bitterness might take root. There is no time for merriment apart from God, taking a break from his ways and only returning to them for prayer. There is no full way of being human apart from the life of faith.

Seek first the kingdom, means to be deeply inwardly changed. To have the wellspring of life transform you. Not to change yourself, but to have God do work that only He can do. It’s not simply the absence of sin and evil but the presence of Life and even Life evermore.

Before the Children of God are sent off to the wilderness there is this interesting promise in the Book of Exodus:

“He said, ‘If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you’ (Exodus 15:26).

The healer, the great physician, the God who does not change his character, his love or his nature. For in him we live in light ineffable.

Forgiveness removes us and our hurts from the center of the brokenness that we experience in our lives. Our need for forgiveness from God, reorients our experience of others. We are no longer the center of our own pain and wrongs committed on us, but instead we see ourselves as a fellow beggar in need of daily manna from heaven. It’s a type of humility that says if I were in the situation of another, I know that my character apart from God is of such a quality where I may have very well done the same. It makes us live into the reality that the only good things in this life are truly gifts from above, that apart from God we can do nothing.

So instead of things to be consumed, relationships become the gift of a good God. The maintenance and commitment of such a relationship depends on the Lord working in the relationship itself. If we are others oriented the Lord can use that to bring some remarkable and family like dynamics with those we love and are in relationship with. Apart from that we can still practice peace, patience, kindness, and the heavenly and holy fruits in all our relating, even if it is simply for a season.

Forgiveness is a balm that brings us into the reality of the frailty of others and our own frailty. True forgiveness frees us from ourselves and orients us back to the well-spring of Life which is Jesus.

 

On Friendships

There is too much being written about how hard it is for men to relate to other men. Given that we live in a more socially mobile age, you get the impression that it must be almost impossible to have good, stable male friendships.

That’s really not the case.

Jesus tells us that we are his  friends if we do what he says. In the words of the book of James we are to become doers of the word, not simply listeners.  So what is a doer when it comes to friendship?

One that loves his neighbor as himself, one that forgives his neighbor, one that helps his neighbor in need whether physical or otherwise, one that exemplifies peace, patience, and self-control. One that does not avoid conflict or avoid their neighbor when they are hurt or disappointed, but one who is steadfast with his neighbor to the end.

Now just by putting the words of scripture into practice doesn’t mean that we’ll advance far along the way of robust, healthy, and long lasting friendships, but it does mean that we can be consistent in our character as far as it depends on us. We could consider holding in our slights and hurts and be more consistent in bearing with each other. We will find plenty of people who will come in and out of our lives, who won’t be there for us, who won’t match our ideas of friendships, who won’t be honest. All of this is really beyond our control.

What we can control is our approach to others, having an ever better understanding of our inner life, being transparent with how God made us, seeking counsel and help as needed, acknowledging our many weaknesses, and growing in our willingness and ability to forgive and be engaged with others. This is no easy thing. We are all called brothers and sisters in the Lord. We have a familial relationship in our standing with each other whether we recognize it or not. In other words we are a dysfunctional family in the church that needs to work on our ability to be reconciled to each other.

One way that happens it through friendships. A friendship may or may not met your expectations and you might not be able to share yourself fully or even be yourself fully, but by being consistent and by operating within your abilities and personality, you can over time have a solid and consistent friendship with other people.

The ultimate goal of Christian friendship isn’t simply vulnerability (though that may happen) or overcoming obstacles and challenges together (that may happen too), it’s growing into the fullness of Christ’s character. That means consistency, compassion, firmness of inner character, and a radical commitment to forgive and be reconciled. In other words to live at peace and grow in our ability to be graceful to each other as we are and as we will be in the age to come. Amen.