THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 147
Making Jesus the centre of your life - the only way to freedom.
[please refer to tonycrosscolumn.org.uk for archived material]
It has been my experience that life fluctuates between commitment to Christ and indulgence. By commitment to Christ I mean the times when I have held to the reality of Christ in my heart and life so vividly that it has impinged on all areas of my living. I would have, for example, a bible-based time of quiet reflection each day - usually first thing in the morning before the day really starts. I would manage to get to church most Sundays. I would be ‘on the ball’ as a Christian. And my life would bear the mark of Christian living- I would be more tolerant, more attentive to the needs and moods of others.
But then, at other times, some habit or desire or besetting sin would get hold of me and I would continue a kind of half life - half committed to Christ in the way that I lived, but often preoccupied or even dominated by some sin or vice or preoccupation of my own.
To take a simple example: sometimes I keep the attraction of food and drink in its proper place but at other times food and/or drink becomes very important to my well being. It assumes an importance in my life out of all proportion to its rightful place. Another example would be my attitude towards those I am in sometimes in conflict with: my boss perhaps, or my mother-in-law!
This kind of yo-yo battle between ‘indulgence’ of my desires, appetites, attitudes, vices and preoccupations, and my conscious holding of myself open to Christ is an ongoing struggle. It is, I think, part of what it means to be human. It is the battle we all fight in one way or another - even the closeted monk who never comes out into the world but who, perhaps, envies his fellow monk for one reason or another. We all have to continuously fight the trend of our nature.
When one realises that one has succumbed to one’s lower instincts at some point in one’s life, a sense of failure can overcome all else. Will I ever be a real Christian? we ask ourselves. Is my commitment to Christ real? we say. Yet such battles are the very stuff of life and, as someone has said, you only stop being tempted when you are dead!
Nevertheless our faults and failings do constitute a very real problem for many of us. It is the recurring nature of many of the temptations - and our succumbing to them - that worries us - we who are trying to follow Christ. We bemoan our lack of progress. We become conscious of our lower instincts which so easily draw us away from Christ. We find that self, not Christ, is too often at the centre of our life.
It is in times of despondency such as these that we are tempted to give up. We move towards despair and we wonder whether we should not abandon our attempt to follow Christ from whom we feel distant. ‘I am never going to be remotely holy - I just have not got what it takes’, we say to ourselves. I fall at this or that sin at painfully regular intervals. If my life were open like a book some people might well call me a hypocrite. How can I go on pretending that I am living the Christian life when I do …. or ….. (fill in the blanks as appropriate!) A black despair can grip us at these times and we are tempted to throw in the towel - to abandon any attempt to go on struggling to be ‘religious’ or ‘holy’ or as God wants us to be.
Sometimes we are tempted not so much to give up being a Christian as to quietly settle for less - to lower our sights - to not demand so high a moral and spiritual standard of ourselves.
This is a very common situation. We see so much compromise all around that we decide that maybe it is acceptable for us too. There is not a Christian on earth who has not felt that at times. The tension between what we know we should be and what we actually achieve is sometimes just too great.
So how are we to cope with this situation? It will happen, even if it has not faced you already. The disparity between God’s call and our response hits all of us sooner or later.
I think the first response we need to have about our failure and guilt is to recognise that it is an acceptable and normal feeling. - something that affects every Christian in his walk through life. It is the way we are built and it is the nature of the journey. What we need to know is how to use such experiences and turn their destructive power into a positive,
So how should a Christian deal with these experiences of low morale? When we are feeling guilty at failing yet again? When our lack of progress in the Christian life really gets to us?
I suggest three simple steps.
The first step is to recognise that what is happening is a necessary part of the journey towards God. In all of life we seem to travel in phases rather than in a continuous progress. The graph does not go up in an unbroken line. Rather it levels out periodically onto a level plane and then it starts up again. Or it may even dip somewhat, before it takes off again. This is a characteristic of human behaviour. It happens to all of us. When we study for an exam it is usual for there to be periods when we seem to be going backwards, and then we start the ascent again. In all learning modes the plateaux are a common feature.
So it is in the Christian life - we progress by fits and starts, interspersed with periods of static or even backward movement.
Once we accept that that is what is happening (including the despair we feel when our besetting sins or failures recur with monotonous regularity) then we are ready to move into a position of power. To understand the process is to be free from it’s dominance. We can deal with it. We have overcome this before, we can do it again! We recognise that our sense of failure and guilt is not a catastrophe, but rather an incident on a long journey.
The second step is to find forgiveness for whatever it is that we feel guilt about. This is essential. But sometimes we find it difficult because we consider we should couple our asking for forgiveness with a promise never to do it again. But we know that we have made that promise many times before - and still fallen! How can we promise yet again not to do it in future when we have so signally failed so many times in the past? Any promise we make sounds hollow to us - and we think it must sound pretty hollow to God too!
So the second step is to separate our sin from the promise we feel we ought to make to not do it again. Simply confess the sin. And by not trying to promise anything you will be able to see even more clearly exactly what the sin is, and to tell God exactly what it is you want forgiveness for. Be detailed in your confession. Look yourself honestly and describe the situation to God - tell him what the attraction of the sin has been to you. Then ask God to forgive - and move forward to receive that forgiveness. Never mind the future. Just get rid of the past ! Take time to realise the forgiveness of God in your life. What is God doing in forgiving you? He is restoring the relationship between you and himself. It was impaired by your sin - now it is being fully restored. He is reuniting himself to you in the fullest way possible. He is re-opening and cleansing the channels in the two way communication.
Step three is to step into freedom. What dos this mean? God has created a state of freedom for our lives that each of us without exception can step into if we know about it and want it.
The key here is Galatians 5.13:
For you were called to freedom, brethren, only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh but through love serve one another
We are called by God to freedom - why is we are so often enslaved by ‘the flesh’?
The word ‘flesh’ here means more than sensual or bodily sin but rather all sins that spring from our ‘flesh’ life. Fleshly sins are, for example, adultery or fornication. A spiritual sin might be pride.
So what this verse is telling us is that fleshly sins bite deep into our freedom in Christ. Actions have consequences. If we deliberately sin on Thursday then we shall see the effects of that on Friday. Paul is saying that we are called to step into a freedom which is a wonderful God-given experience. If we subvert that freedom we move back into bondage.
So how does one step into freedom? I believe this is the key - and it is Paul’s main message in the New Testament. We step into Christ’s freedom by coming out from living under law. We trust Him instead. How is this so?
We are surrounded, deluged and conditioned by rules and regulations from the day we are born! As we grow up we learn to live by the rules of our society - our family, our school, our college, our employer - the society constantly around us. Do this. Don’t do that. Always respond like this. We find that every aspect of our lives has rules and regulations. Even our religious life. Perhaps especially our religious life! From the ten commandments on down. An ever present corset or framework of rules and regulations that, it is assumed, we are meant to live by.
For some, the ten commandments might appear to be a perfect framework for their lives. For others there are the various rules and precepts laid down in various parts of the New Testament. Others pick up the way they should live from the group they go around with. What is acceptable and what is unacceptable is conditioned by their group. But Jesus said - and Paul also says - that there are only two rules - and they are not so much rules as guides. The first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and the other is to love your neighbour. These are not rules and regulations in the ordinary sense because each time you want to use them you have to work out afresh what they mean in your particular circumstances - what it means to love God and what it means to love your neighbour. And what it means today may be different tomorrow!
So Paul is in effect saying ‘Live in Christ. Love God and your neighbour’ and that’s all. Wasn’t it Augustine who said ‘Love God and do what you want’?
The freedom we have in Christ is to walk away from man-made rules and regulations and to live in the open with Christ.
Take a moment to think what that means for you. The framework of acceptable behaviour which is continuously being built for and by us around out lives is shattered at one stroke. Instead, we are to live in freedom. Freedom from all the paraphernalia of conventional morality, simply because we accept one overarching guiding principle - Love God and love your neighbour.
So step three is that we consciously forego the moral do’s and don’ts that have accumulated in your life. Live dangerously! Let Christ become all in all to you. Let him tell you, through his Spirit, as you travel, what is right and what is wrong. Submit your life to him and step into his glorious freedom.
One consequence is that you become more and less dependant on others! Less dependent because you no longer need the approval of others - or indeed of anyone! You also become less dependent because you stop trying to conform to society’s expectations. But you become more dependent on your Christian brothers and sisters because only they can help you recognise when you are fooling yourself. And we do all fool ourselves at times - or we try to! You know how it happens - when we say ‘I really must have x or y’ or ‘I really cannot help myself - I always do this or that’ or ‘It’s the way I am made - I cannot help myself’ or some such!
So we all need fellow Christians to help us see through our self deceptions. To provide us with the honest appraisal and the straight talk that comes from a true friend who loves us enough to be honest with us. That is another reason why the church is so important. Not the building or the hierarchy or the ritual - but because we all need fellow Christian pilgrims who will have enough love to be honest with us and tell us the truth as they see it. Search out friends like that! We all need them. We all desperately need them.
Three simple steps:
Recognise your situation
Confess and receive forgiveness
Step into the full freedom of Jesus Christ.
It’s a process, not a once for all.