by Jonathan Coe
It’s a familiar story. A person has become a Christian in recent years and is engaged in spiritual practices–prayer, Bible study, meditation, church attendance, fellowship, tithing, and/or the sacraments. They have listened closely to their pastor or priest and have developed some formulas that are supposed to help them overcome the problems, sins, and weaknesses in their lives.
They’ve heard sermons and/or read books that have titles that start with “Three Steps,” “Five Keys,” and “Four Ways,” that are supposed to lead them to the abundant Christian life. They see progress in their lives but are discouraged because they still struggle with certain sins, problems, and/or weaknesses. Some feel like they can’t overcome the very deep negative legacy from the unhealthy family they grew up in.
Church leadership would do many believers a service by teaching them about how God can bring good out of their protracted struggle. No, it’s not God’s will for us to habitually sin , but God, in his tender mercies can work redemptively in this long and frustrating battle against profound sin.
One of the first good things that can come out of a long battle with a character flaw or problem is deliverance from a formulaic Christian faith. “Do these three things and your problem will go away” you learn from a best–seller, but your problem doesn’t go away. The fallen human heart is a complex and formidable thing, and these canned approaches are a little like taking a squirt gun to a forest fire.
When people experience sustained adversity, their lives feel out of control, and they will often grab on to formulas to give them a sense of righting a ship that’s taking on water. Unfortunately, they end up trusting in the formulas more than God himself.
Faith in formulas will always eclipse faith in God.
The Christian life is more about a restful trust in a Person than embracing a set of principles (no matter how spiritual those principles may sound.)
The New Testament is clear on the centrality of faith (not self–effort or formulas) in the overcoming life:
When asked by his disciples what they must do to do the works God requires, Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe on the one he has sent” (John 6:28, 29). When describing the person who overcomes the world, the Apostle John said, “He who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (I John 5:4, 5).
The failure of formulas is a good experience because it drives the believer to faith in the living God. In this faith, there is a wonderful exchange: I give Christ my pitiful attempts to live the victorious Christian life and he gives me his transforming power to overcome sin. However, this exchange may not happen overnight; it may be a process that takes years.
For those of you in a long struggle, please be comforted by the mercies of God that endure forever. If he can forgive a murderer and adulterer like David, he can forgive you and me. Please take the advice that Winston Churchill gave the British people during World War II: “Never, never, never, never give up ” or listen to the lyrics from a U2 song called “Miracle Drug” : ”There is no failure here, sweetheart/ Just when you quit.”
Even better is C.S. Lewis from The Business of Heaven:
“I know all about the despair of overcoming chronic temptations. It is not serious, provided self–offended petulance, annoyance at breaking records, impatience, etc. don’t get the upper hand. No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home, but the bathrooms are already, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and to give it up. It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us: it is the very sign of his presence.”
I say Amen.