A command with a powerful promise

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is well-known for its twelve step program to help free people from the controlling power of alcohol. In the steps, you’ll discover themes that appear prominently in the first two.

Step #1 – We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

Step #2 – We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 

Most recovering alcoholics admit that these two steps are crucial to ongoing freedom from the controlling power of alcohol (or any other addictive influence). They’ll also quickly tell you that an alcoholic’s unwillingness to admit that he is powerless is a clear warning sign of a potential return to alcohol.

What they have recognized in AA about gaining freedom from alcohol’s power is something Scripture already taught about gaining freedom from the controlling power of the flesh. What is it?

Step #1 – We cannot do it in our own strength. 

Step #2 - We need the power of God to live a life that pleases God (to restore us to sanity).

Truth – God gives this power to us through His Spirit whom He caused to live in us when we believed (see: Ephesians 1:18-20; 3:16).

We are not passive recipients

When we speak of the power of God by His Spirit, we should not see ourselves as passive recipients of this power but as actively seeking God’s power.

When the apostle says, “live” or “walk” – “by the Spirit,” he means, “let your conduct be directed by the Spirit.” 

Command with a promise

It’s a command that requires our obedience and it comes with an emphatic promise based on a double negative in the Greek language — (aorist subjunctive) “you will by no means fulfill the desires of the flesh (or sinful nature).”

Four verbs are used in Galatians 5 to describe the involvement of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, (all of them roughly equivalent in meaning).

v.16 – “live/walk by the Spirit”
v.18 – “led by the Spirit”
v.25a – “live by the Spirit”
v.25b – “keep in step with the Spirit”

All of these fit under the command in Ephesians 5:18 to “be filled with the Spirit.” And these verbs send a strong reminder of how completely dependent we must be on the Spirit’s presence and power.

Galatians 5:16

“so I say”, (or ςέ “but I say”). This is a common formula, used by Paul, to alert his readers to an emphatic point: “Here is my advice.” Or, “Here is the remedy for the situation described in v. 15 – “;if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.”

To protect the community from destructive relationships (15), each member must “live or walk by the Spirit” – present tense —“go on walking…” (16). 

  • Command: “live or walk by the Spirit.”
  • Promise:  “you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature (or flesh).” 

The RSV translates this as two commands, the second being, “do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Yet, while we do have similar commands in the NT (e.g. Rom. 6:12-13; 13:14; I Peter 2:11), Galatians 5:16 is a promise or a word of assurance indicating the means for gaining victory over flesh.

He is not saying: “Try not to fulfill the lusts of the flesh and then you will walk in the Spirit,” as though the latter were a reward for the former. This is the error of depending on the flesh to walk by the Spirit.

Conflict

Verse 17 expands on the conflict that confronts every believer. We could look at it as a conflict between two wills:

  • My will and God’s will.
  • Or between: “the ought to” and  “the want to.”

It’s great when these come happily together, when “I will to do what God wills for me to do” Or, “I want to do what I ought to do.”

But so often we experience an ongoing conflict or tension between these two and it sometimes gets incredibly intense and unrelenting (cf. Rom. 7:19, 21-25). So where do we look for the strength and power to overcome?

Galatians 5:16— “Walk by the Spirit…” present tense—“go on walking…” This is not something you must do from time to time. It’s a way of life!  It’s long obedience in the same direction.

There is no way to get to a place where we no longer experience the tension. There is no secret spiritual technique or second blessing that will put us above the battleground. To make this point forcefully, the moment you think you’re invulnerable to the allurement of the flesh — you are most vulnerable.

If you think you have reached some higher plane of spirituality — above the conflict between flesh and spirit — you are perilously self-deceived.

One has written,–“No Christians are so spiritually strong or mature that they need not hear his warning, but neither are any so weak or vacillating that they cannot be free from the tyranny of the flesh through the power of the Spirit… In the battle between the forces of flesh and Spirit there is no stalemate, but the Spirit takes the lead, overwhelms, and thus defeats evil.”

A man came to his Pastor and explained how impossible it felt to live a Christian life. The Pastor fully agreed and the man was taken back! He expected to be rebuked and set right. Instead, the Pastor congratulated him for learning the most important lesson for living the life of victory. What is it? That you can’t do it! You must live in continual dependence on God.

This is not the “let go and let God” approach. This is a constant practice of humbling oneself before God and learning to lean on Him, rest in Him and look to Him.

It involves commitment to all the spiritual disciplines out of a strong sense of need and dependence (akin to hunger and thirst) (cf. Deut. 8:1-3- God will teach you this).

Not without a battle

But, as v. 17 indicates, walking by the Spirit is not done without a battle or conflict. 

“For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you.” (NIV)

“Does man choose evil, the Spirit opposes him; does he choose good, the flesh hinders him.”

Be encouraged by the presence of such a battle. It’s another evidence that God dwells in you by the Spirit (James 4:4-5; Rom. 7:14-25).

Yet the conflict is real. As one has written:  “In the battle between the forces of flesh and Spirit there is no stalemate.” One wins and one loses, — always in relation to our response! 

We must take an active role with regard to the powerful ministry of the Spirit! It begins with an admission that says, “I am powerless in myself” and “I need God’s power to overcome the flesh.”

If I really mean this, I will humbly pursue all that God has made available to me (see: II Tim. 3:16-17; Rom. 8:5; 13:14; I Peter 2:11)

A final thought 

These passages focus on a contrast of desire – what the Spirit desires and what the flesh desires.

Perhaps we struggle so much with wrong desires because we need to become captured by stronger desires. I think of the great command – “To love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” This is a positive desire. This is an offensive not just a defensive posture (see: Psalm 42:1-2).

 Steve Cornell

Social Justice and the Church

The Church is in need of a far deeper understanding of what it means for believers to be agents of common grace who are committed to the welfare of the city of our exile.

This calling is rooted in our identity as salt to the earth and light to the world (Matthew 5:13-16). It also has profound theological foundations on at least three levels of shared life between redeemed and unredeemed.

1. Common origin: God’s ownership and image as a universal human reality.
2. Common Concerns: stewardship of the earth as a shared dwelling place
3. Common Connections: accessible truth about God, moral order and transcendence.

This part of our mission is largely built on truth about the universal human reality of the Imago Dei (the image of God). It provides a case for believing that, “God has lawfully ordered his creation in a way that all human beings have some sort of cognitive access to that lawfulness” (Richard Mouw). Romans 2:15-16 appear to validate this cognitive access — even among those who don’t have access to Scripture.



The realm of common grace presupposes an ability to have rational conversations about a common good with fellow human beings. In some political circumstances Christians must accept limitations and pursue other means of influence because they are not permitted to participate in choosing laws and policies. But as long as we live in a system that allows us to sit at the table to seek the good that leads to laws and policies, why would we neglect such a privilege? 



Are there social, cultural and political agents of change ordained by God for the common good? Yes. And these are His gifts of common grace. Parents and authorities are two of the primary examples (Ephesians 6:1Romans 13:1-4). Society benefits when parents are attentive and diligent. We need laws and law enforcement to protect us. We also need mentors to train us.

We can engage in truth-based dialogue and persuasion in settings like family, work, community and government without quoting biblical chapters and verses. When sensitivities are high to separation of Church and Sate, explicit use of Scripture in dialogue about public policy will be more quickly dismissed. 

We can confidently articulate a worldview that honors our Creator and Savior without verbalizing explicit references to the Bible. We can also hope for some of these truths to resonate with the general public.  Never forget that each person brings a worldview to discussions about moral and social issues. Many of our laws and policies reflect moral and worldview commitments.  

What we need is more thoughtful creativity about the best ways to engage the public in serious dialogue and persuasive thinking on current social issues. Frankly, what I’m advocating will require a deep understanding of the unfolding narative of Scripture in shaping our worldview. 

How could those who honor the Creator refuse to care about a common good for His creatures? How could we withdraw from the table of discussion where the policies and laws are formed that profoundly impact our neighbors?

Of course, all activity on this level can never displace the greater needs we have as human beings. The human need is far deeper than social or cultural change. Our nature itself must change. We need a change of being or ontological transformation. This change only comes through God’s gift of spiritual regeneration in the gospel. Rules and laws can be used to regulate behaviors but a change of being is nothing short of a creative act of God.

God said, “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19). We need a recreation or new creation by the renewing of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) for the restoring of God’s image in us.

Steve Cornell

 

Sin is wrong and dumb – a form of self-abuse

Here is a deeply insightful reflection from one of my favorite authors, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. It’s a bit long but well worth reading and discussing.  

“The shortest and clearest way to state the relation between sin and foolishness is to say that not all foolishness is sin, but all sin is foolishness. Sin is both wrong and dumb. Indeed, wherever foolishness is playing, sin is the main event. Sin is the world’s most impressive example of foolishness.”

“What is it about sin that makes it so foolish? Sin is the wrong recipe for good health; sin is the wrong gasoline to run human life on; sin is the wrong direction and the wrong road to get home. In other words, sin is finally futile.”

“Pride, for example, is futile because self-fascination is so often unrequited. Moreover, pride is subject to the tolerance effect, the law of diminishing returns: the more self-absorbed we are, the less there is to find absorbing.”

“Robert Roberts adds that the pride project in human life – the attempt to become our own first cause – is carried on by people who are riven with the knowledge that though they may be gods, transcendent above the rest of creation, they are also worms and food for worms. We live with the dreadful contradiction lying drugged and groggy in our bosoms: the need to be heroes and the fact of being worms.”

“Whats more, we try to resolve this contradiction by adopting another: we try to exalt ourselves by meeting other peoples standards of acceptability. What would be the point of doing thunderous slam dunks or of performing rock songs if everybody just yawned? Our goodness (being known, admired, envied) depends on the standards and opinions of people just as riven as we are. ‘Stars are really only moons,’ says Roberts, ‘drawing upon and reflecting the light of others.'”

“Pride is the first and most popular form of idolatry. But all forms of idolatry involve us deeply in folly. All idolatry is not only treacherous, but also futile. Human desire, deep and restless and seemingly unfulfillable, keeps stuffing itself with finite goods, but these cannot satisfy. If we try to fill our hearts with anything besides the God of the universe, we find that we are overfed but undernourished, and that day by day, week by week, year after year, we are thinning down to a mere outline of a human being.”

“Sad to say, this kind of thing happens all the time. People hungry for love, people who want to connect, open up a sequence of shallow, self-seeking relationships with other shallow, self-seeking persons, and find that at the end of the day they are emptier than when they began.”

“The whole project has been as idle and dehumanizing as the conversations on those dating-and-mating TV programs that explore the sump level of lubriciousness.”

“Beneath all their surface liveliness, the sadness of these programs is that they reduce their participants to mere leering silhouettes.
”

“Sin is futile and therefore foolish. Georges Bernanos country priest remarks that Satan has involved himself in a hopeless program of swimming against the stream of the universe, of wearing himself out in absurd, terrifying attempts to reconstruct in the opposite direction the whole work of the Creator.”

“Thus, while moral evil is destructive, and sometimes infuriating, it is also in some way ludicrous. ‘Mere Christianity,’ says C. S. Lewis, ‘commits us to believing that the Devil is (in the long run) an ass.
'”

“Sin is folly. No matter what images they choose, the writers of the Bible say this again and again. Sin is missing the target; sin is choosing the wrong target. Sin is wandering from the path, or rebellion against someone too strong for us, or neglecting a good inheritance. Above all, at its core, sin is offense against God.

”

“Why is it not only wrong but also foolish to offend God? God is our final good, our maker and savior, the one in whom alone our restless hearts come to rest.”

“To rebel against God is to saw off the branch that supports us. As Richard Lovelace remarks, ‘to flee from God to some far country and to search for fulfillment there is to find only black-market substitutes: instead of joy, the buzz in your temples from four or five martinis; instead of self-giving love, sex with strangers; instead of a parents unconditional enthusiasm for you as a person, only the professional support of a fashionable therapist who will indeed pump up your ego whenever it loses pressure, but who also keeps his meter running.’”

“Rebellion against God and flight from God remove us from the sphere of blessing; these moves cut us off from our only invisible means of support.

”

“Thus sin dissipates us in futile projects, but also in self-destructive ones. Sin hurts other people and grieves God, but it also corrodes us. Sin is a form of self-abuse. Promiscuous persons, for example, coarsen themselves. They disqualify themselves for the deepest forms of intimacy, the ones bonded by trust, and condemn themselves to social superficiality, as one of my friends once put it.”

“Something similar is true of liars and cheats. As Christopher Lasch remarks, ‘Whoever cheats his neighbor forfeits his neighbors trust, imprisons himself behind a wall of enmity and suspicion, and thus cuts himself off from his fellows.’”

“Envy – the displeasure at another’s good and the urge to despoil him of it-traps and torments the envier, turning his life into a hell of resentment.”

“Proud persons isolate themselves. Pride aborts the very possibility of real friendship or communion, namely, benevolence toward being in general. More basically, pride amounts to a kind of phantom wisdom. Because of pride, fools are unteachable. They know it all. You can’t tell them anything. They are wise in their own eyes – a sure sign of folly.

“Badly educated ministers who are both vague and dogmatic, off-key singers who insist on contending for solo parts, children of Israel who wander forty years in the wilderness because (already then) the men were unwilling to ask for directions, pinball enthusiasts who devote ten years of their adult lives to becoming the best player in their neighborhood tavern, rejecting every inquiry about the worthwhileness of this project with the remark that the inquirer must be envious – these and other standouts from the ranks of the foolish display one of human life’s most wondrous combinations: the stubborn combination of ignorance and arrogance.”

“The foolish, as the saying goes, are often in error, but never in doubt. Moreover, when their dogmatism is challenged, they increase it. Some of them give you a piece of their mind they can hardly afford to lose. Willfulness of this kind causes the foolish a good deal of misery and also prevents their escape from it. For to escape from a foolish line of thought or a destructive course of action, a person has to stop, admit he is wrong, turn around, head back to safe ground, and then try a new route.”

“As C. S. Lewis once said, ‘When we have gotten a wrong sum at the beginning of a sequence of calculations, we cannot improve matters by simply going on.'” 


“A proud person tries to reinvent reality. He tries to redraw the borders of human behavior to suit himself, displacing God as the Lord and boundary-keeper of life.”

“At bottom, the proud fool is out of touch with reality. For, of course, our wills are not sovereign. We are not really our own centers, anchors, or lawgivers. We have not made ourselves, cannot keep ourselves, cannot ultimately oblige or forgive ourselves. The image of ourselves as center of the world is fantasy – perhaps, in its sheer detachment from reality, even a form of madness.” (adapted from, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, By Cornelius Plantinga).

The advantage of Christian counseling

In a conversation with a medical doctor, he expressed frustration about the number of times he diagnosed significant levels of anxiety or depression only to be told by a patient that her pastor or friend warned against medicine and suggested that her problem was spiritual.

“This kind of five Bible verses and you’ll be better approach is far more common than many realize.” The doctor said.

He’s right. And Christians lose credibility in this area when they have far more too offer. In my conversation with the doctor, I suggested the following perspective:

Perspective on Christian counseling


When I counsel others, I usually begin with an assumption that they have a full line of moral credit. I treat them as individuals who can accept and pay for their debts. Out of basic respect for their dignity as beings made in the image of God, I relate to them as responsible, capable, culpable and accountable.

Yet I realize that life is not so easily reduced to raw choosing. We must guard against a tendency within the Church to make all of life a matter of choice; of obedience or disobedience. We must apply compassionate consideration to how complex life can be. Far too often believers approach people one dimensionally, as if humans were only spiritual beings in need of salvation.

Yet, according to Scripture, there are four dimensions of human life. We are…

  1. physical beings with bodily needs.
  2. social beings with relationship needs.
  3. psychological beings with cognitive needs.
  4. spiritual beings with a need for God.



Christian counselors have a unique advantage of being able to approach issues holistically based on these dimensions. I use the word “advantage” because many other disciplines will not consider that spiritual dimension. If we find it inadequate to leave out this dimension (as we should), why do we do the same thing with the other dimensions?

A thorough biblical understanding of humanity protects us from simplistic reductions because we know that God has made humans as physical, social, psychological and spiritual beings. Each of these dimensions must be considered when understanding and counseling behavior.

Unlike other disciplines, Christian counselors do not treat people as products of impersonal chance. Since we know that there is a personal creator, we call people to more than human perspectives about life.

The mistake Christians often make is being overly zealous to offer quick answers for the issues that trouble people. “After all,” we’re told, “the Bible speaks to every issue of life.” “So,” it seems to many believers, “all I have to do is find a verse or two of Scripture that applies and share them with the person who asks for advice.”

This approach is typically based on careless listening. When we’re more interested in our answer than in understanding a person’s problem, we need to learn patience by listening more compassionately. We don’t want to be the fool who answers a matter before hearing it. And we should always try to ways that the four dimensions might relate.


Some clarification

I am not suggesting that we encourage people to avoid responsibility for their actions. Playing the victim only binds people to more destructive life-patterns. But superficial diagnoses typically lead to inadequate remedies.

When counseling others, for example, it would be horribly simplistic to overlook or  minimize the effects of a deeply troubled upbringing. When children (who are intended by God to be lovingly nurtured and brought to maturity under the responsible oversight of parents) are neglected, poorly guided or abused, it profoundly affects their personal lives and relationships.

In many cases, one must look back to better understand the influences that shaped their current approaches to life. Our story is not meant to be one formed in isolation but in a social context — for better or for worse. Each persons story has been significantly shaped by others.

We shouldn’t look back to blame, excuse or justify, but to understand and find a clearer plan for change.

What we’re saying is that one’s sociology (relationships and life circumstances) plays a significant role (by divine intent) in shaping one’s overall life. This must be considered by those who counsel the whole person holistically (based on a full biblical perspective of humanity).

Wisdom then calls us to consider a wider perspective of life as we help individuals address their deepest needs. When counseling deeper life issues that hold people in patterns that are not flourishing in God’s will, very often a person’s social history and context must be explored as part of the diagnosis. This is validated by the fact that a key component to flourishing in a blessed life is our associations or those we are in company with (Psalm 1:1-3).

Another example is the use of medicinal aids for behavior or moods. Many medicines are helpful for addressing actual physical needs but use of them should not preclude responsibility and accountability in seeking resolution to negative behaviors and moods. The need for medicines should temper our approach to people with large doses of compassion and mercy, but only in a context that preserves the dignity of an individual exercising as much responsibility as possible — in a context of truth.

I suggest that counselors and doctors should never view medicinal aids as a solution for neurologically based needs. We are more than bodies and brains with physical needs. Other dimensions of our being (spiritual, emotional, social) must receive thoughtful consideration in our battle for health.

There is a tendency among some Christian counselors to react with suspicion toward medicinal aids. This is sometimes a reaction to a common negative posture found in secular psychiatry and bio-psychiatry toward spiritual dimensions of personhood. But we must not allow misguided assumptions (no matter how condescending) to cause knee-jerk reactions among Christian counselors. Nor should we carelessly dismiss research and findings in these fields.

A biblically-based holistic approach to counseling respects all dimensions of personhood created by God in the full context of a narrative of creation, fall, redemption, sanctification and final restoration.

Christian counselors should use the widest possible lens for understanding and addressing human behavior. This provides counselors with a unique advantage for being holistically honest in dealing with human problems.

Christian counselors have a unique advantage of being holistically honest in dealing with human problems. A theologically grounded vision of humanity protects counselors from simplistic reductions. Each dimension of life must be considered when understanding human behavior. And we also take seriously the profound affects of sin on each dimension. Diagnosis and solution that does not take seriously this painful truth will be superficial at best and ultimately harmful.

Steve Cornell


When words cannot restore trust

Among people who have been loved by God, “love covers a multitude of offenses” (I Peter 4:8).

Forgiven people forgive others. Where minor offenses occur, forgiveness and reconciliation will restore relationships to true unity. Those who withhold restoration over minor grievances are not behaving consistent with gospel-based love (see: Ephesians 4:32-5:1). Where such love is lacking, immaturity and manipulation often threaten unity.

But when we have been deeply or repeatedly sinned against, forgiveness does not necessarily require immediate restoration of the same level of relationship with an offender. Even when God forgives our sins, He does not promise to remove all consequences created by our actions.

Being forgiven, restored, and trusted is an amazing experience, but it’s important for those who significantly hurt others to understand that their attitude and actions will affect the process of rebuilding trust. Words alone are not enough to restore trust in such cases.

When a husband speaks harshly to his wife in a way that is out of character, his acknowledgement of sinning against her should be received with forgiveness and restoration. If he repeatedly speaks this way, he should expect his acknowledgements of wrong to be more difficult to receive. If the pattern continues, his wife could appropriately tell him that she forgives him but will not accept his harshness in the future without consequences.

When someone has been significantly hurt and feels hesitant about restoration with her offender, it’s both right and wise to look for changes in the offender before allowing reconciliation to begin. This is especially true when an offense has been repeated.

See: Seven signs of true repentance and Instruments of godly sorrow

Steve Cornell

For those who battle discouragement

If we’re not careful the setbacks and discouragements of life can begin to define our spirit. 

This often happens when maturity gives way to melancholy and leads to an overall disincentive, loss of motivation and diminished hope. But can setbacks and defeat actually lead to a deflated kind of resignation — even to cynicism and bitterness? Yes.     

A clouded perspective can easily turn into a dark and negative outlook that expects the worst most of the time. But always remember that pessimism and bitterness are infectious and defiling (see, Hebrews 12:15). They spread in ways that hurt others.

The way out

We must come to terms with the connection between loss of godly optimism and a decreased practice of gratitude. “It’s a sign of mediocrity when you demonstrate gratitude with moderation.”

If you’ve lost the vital optimism of life, the path of recovery must include a renewed discipline of gratitude. To shake a spirit of discouragement, we must learn to, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:18). 

Spirit-filled people are “always giving thanks to God the Father foreverything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-20).

Scriptures to encourage you

  • Isaiah 40:30-31 – “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (NIV)
  • II Corinthians 4:7-9 - “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” (ESV)
  • II Corinthians 4:16-18 – “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (ESV)
  • II Corinthians 12:9-10 – “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
  • Romans 12:11-14 – “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” (NIV)
  • Hebrews 11:6 - “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

What are you thankful for today?

A song to lift you

Steve Cornell

Our only hope and those who receive it

Watching and reading the daily news gives the feeling that things are not getting better on the planet we call home. 

Current conditions make me want to offer a simple prayer,

“Dear God, things are not so good down here. I am sure I am not telling you anything you don’t know but this world is really messed up. I usually tend to be optimistic, but lately it’s been tough. Even when I feel that things are going well, I can’t escape a sense that more bad news might be right around the corner. God could you please tell us what your answer is for this mess? I know you didn’t originally plan for things to be this way and I realize that we chose to rebel against your good plan for us. But where can we find hope in such a dark world?” 

Take a few moments and consider God’s answer to the human problem from an Old Testament text. In Ezekiel 11, God revealed his answer for our deepest need. 

What will help us with our personal and relational crises?

The answer to our waywardness and our departure from our Maker is not more laws; it’s not better education; it’s not even civil rights. Though none of these things are necessarily wrong, they too often prove to be mere external adjustments. They give you the feel of rearranging the deck chairs while the ship is sinking.

What we learn from Scripture is that our real need is for nothing short of Divine intervention.

Listen to these words of action from God. 

“I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20).

God says that He will take on the needed work.

  • “I will give them…”
  • “I will put a new spirit in them.”
  • “I will remove from them… and give them…”

In the order of God’s work, divine intervention proceeds inner transformation. We need far more than a few external adjustments. Only God can give someone an undivided heart and a new spirit. Only God can remove a heart of stone (a hardened and stubborn heart) replacing it with a heart of flesh (a humble and teachable heart).

The pattern of God’s work looks like this:

  1. Divine intervention: “I will give, put, remove, give…”
  2. Life transformation: “Then they will follow.. and be careful to keep…”
  3. Personal relationship: “They will be my people….I will be their God”

But does Scripture provide insight about the kind of person who receives this gracious intervention of God? Yes. And it might surprise some people.

The answer is found in a story Jesus gave in Luke 18:9-14, When you read it below, look closely at the contrast between two types of people.

One man has a heart that is hardened in prideful self-righteousness; the other, a heart overwhelmed with unworthiness and in desperate need of mercy.

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

The self-righteous person sees no need for intervention. Rescue? Salvation? These things are for the degenerate ones! The self-righteous person is doing quite well in his own estimation.

But to make matters worse, the self-righteous use others to leverage their deluded sense of superiority. They boast about their deeds and fill their proud hearts with contempt toward those whom they consider unworthy.

By contrast, Jesus pictured this chest-beating, mercy-pleading, self-confessed sinner. Here is a man who is not even sure he should be in a place where God dwells. He keeps to a distance and feels the weight of his wretchedness. He knows his need for divine intervention. He finds nothing about himself to boast of and only appeals to God based on mercy.

While the first man builds a case for justification before God, the second pleads with God to withhold the judgment he knows he deserves. This second man, rather than the other, receives the gift of divine intervention, this chest-beating, mercy-pleading self-confessed sinner goes home justified before God.

Steve Cornell

Bitterness – a self-justifying emotional drug

There are good reasons for the Scripture that says, “Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many” (Hebrews 12:15).

When bitterness conquers the heart, (even if it feels justified), it fills a person with a deadly venom that can poison generations. And once bitterness begins to poison the heart, it is difficult to find an anti-venom to stop it. 

Bitterness has a way of multiplying an injury by spreading more injury wherever the bitter person goes. Bitterness is rarely a static emotion but one that requires an ongoing collection of injuries to feed it. Bitter people are difficult to help because bitterness is also a self-justifying emotional drug that demands a self-destructive level of addiction while supplying a false sense of revenge.

There is only one solution

Bitterness is so powerful that it must be conquered with its opposite – Kindness. “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).

Jesus Christ can supply the power needed to liberate a bitter person to obey His command to, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (Luke 6:27-28).

See also: Responding to unjust treatment (6 truths) and Grudge-bearers have a worship deficit

Steve Cornell

 

Moving from anxiety to peace

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All people experience moments of anxiety. These are times when feelings of apprehension produce fear and worry. We are wise to take time to understand anxiety and consider ways to respond to it.

Anxiety can trouble our minds and distract us from the normal flow of life. Anxiety can be anything from annoying to distracting to debilitating.  It can also be caused by and produce physical conditions. Anxiety can cause one to sweat and increase one’s heart rate; it causes nausea, headaches and even changes in brain chemistry.

Interestingly, “… anxiety is a uniquely human experience. Other animals clearly know fear, but human anxiety involves an ability to use memory and imagination to move backward and forward in time that animals do not appear to have. The anxiety that occurs in post traumatic syndromes indicates that human memory is a much more complicated mental function than animal memory. Moreover, a large portion of human anxiety is produced by anticipation of future events. Without a sense of personal continuity over time, people would not have the ‘raw materials’ of anxiety” (Medical Dictionary)

Social considerations

“Anxiety often has a social dimension because humans are social creatures. People frequently report feelings of high anxiety when they anticipate and, therefore, fear the loss of social approval or love. Social phobia is a specific anxiety disorder that is marked by high levels of anxiety or fear of embarrassment in social situations” (Medical Dictionary).

Severe Anxiety

When anxiety becomes a disorienting and debilitating state of mind, it’s characterized as an “overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physiological signs (as sweating, tension, and increased pulse), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it” (Webster).

For some people anxiety is more than an occasional disruption to the flow of life – it’s where they live their lives each day. This degree of anxiety can be paralyzing and spiral people into endless cycles of irrational fear and panic attacks.

StressI know people who have been surprised by waves of anxiety that seem to have little rational cause. Sometimes those who endure traumatic experiences or oppressive circumstances spiral into anxiety because their brain chemistry has been affected by their circumstances.

When this happens it usually becomes more difficult to navigate out of fearful perspectives that lack rational cause. People who experience this level of anxiety often feel stuck and unable to change. The sources of encouragement that help others seem unable to lift the cloud of anxiety over them.

Helping the whole person

Sometimes in the Church well-intentioned but unhelpful people will wrongly interpret physically based anxiety as solely spiritual and volitional. They tell those who struggle that they need to trust God more or stop fearing man. They assign Scriptures to memorize like Philippians 4:6-8 and I Peter 5:6-9. These are very helpful passages but until the physical matters are addressed application could be difficult to the point of discouragement. 

These counselors fail to respect the multi-dimensional way God has created us. Reducing all problems to spiritual causes, they fail to adequately assess the social and physical factors that could be involved in debilitating experiences of anxiety. Sadly, by treating severe anxiety as volitional based, they only heap more anxiety on those they sincerely desire to help.

This is not to say that spiritually based counsel shouldn’t be given but that such counsel will not reach someone with biologically based anxiety in the way it was intended. Instead, a process of elimination should be used to diagnose the cause or causes behind anxiety. The path to restoration should also be multidimensional. Some counselors are too hasty to assess the needs of others by jumping right to the spiritual without adequately looking at the whole person. This is a failure to be faithful to all that Scripture teaches about the way God made people. It’s also often a simplistic reduction of the effects of the fall of man from God.

The body’s chemistry can affect one’s mind and emotions. When assessing crippling emotions like anxiety or depression, we must respect the physical, social, spiritual and mental dimensions of personhood. I encourage medical doctors not to give patients  prescriptions for medicines to help anxiety or depression without making sure that other means of support are in place. Similarly, I am certain doctors wouldn’t want me to point people to three bible verses to heal these challenges.

As Christians, we must honor the way our Creator fashioned us and the effects of the fall by evaluating the whole person not just one dimension. When Christian counselors become one-dimensional, they bring disrepute on the Church. Sometimes they think they’re just trying to be faithful to the Bible by putting spiritual things first. This is where they’re being misled. Faithfulness to the Bible entails respect for the physical, social, spiritual and mental dimensions of personhood. It also considers paths to restoration involving intellectual, emotional and volitional changes.

Medication and Anxiety

images-39There are helpful medications people can benefit from if they are in the grip of life-controlling anxiety. Consultation with a family doctor is essential for this step. Efforts to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs are destructive in the long run. They also reflect a kind of  stubborn pride that chooses  artificial control over the transparency necessary for true help.

If a doctor prescribes a medicine and it proves helpful, please do not see it as a problem solved. Rather, it’s wise to see it as a first step toward restoration of life on many levels.

The medicine often enables a person to receive benefit from other sources of help. In most cases, social and spiritual areas of life need attention along with the physical. This usually requires the assistance of a wise counselor and some trusted friends. It sometimes requires a kind of restructuring of life and relationships to experience full restoration.

Steve Cornell

The history of evil

 

How should we understand the reality of evil in the world? Why is evil a part of human history on every part of the globe; in every human heart? What accounts for this ugly part of our story?

The biblical account tells the story of evil with a convergence of characters (see: Genesis 3:1-6). In the first temptation on record, we discover that it began with a competing truth claim. A strange being  approached Eve and offered her an alternative view of reality. She had only known one way of seeing things – God’s way. But this character (whom we now know as Satan or the evil one) offered a different way of looking at life. He offered a different version of God and of what happens when one abandons God’s way for life. But the offer was made in an alluring context of self-interest. It was not offered in a detached philosophical way. It was a twisted version of reality to lure her to a different way to live – a way centered in self-absorption.

It started with a subtle and twisted suggestion that God is overly restrictive in His demands. It moved to a blatant denial of the Divinely stated consequences of disobeying God’s will. Thus was introduced the Suspicion of Eden — the notion that the good life is outside of the will of God, not within it. No philosophical detachment in this offer.

In the predictable pattern of evil, Eve saw what was forbidden, desired it, took it and gave it (Genesis 3:6). The generational consequences have been disastrous! (see: Genesis 3-4; Romans 5:12ff.).

Seven consequences emerge — each affecting a major area of human existence and providing a background to the primary occupational majors at the Universities. 

These consequences correspond directly with the human story from our beginning to this day. They included the following: 

  1. Physiological: death, decay, sickness and suffering (Gen. 3:17-19; Rom. 5:12; 8:19-22)
  2. Psychological: shame, guilt, fear (Gen. 3:7).
  3. Sociological: blame-shifting, alienation, separation (Gen. 3:8, 12-13; Isa. 53:6). 
  4. Ecological: ground is cursed, thorns and thistles (Gen. 3:17-19).
  5. Spiritual: hiding from God, enmity: seed of woman and seed of Serpent (Gen. 3:8, 15, 4:1-15; I Jn 3:12; Isa. 59:1-2).
  6. Epistemological: distorted thinking, spiritual blindness (II Cor. 4:3-6; Rom. 1:28) Noetic affects.
  7. Criminalmurder! (fratricidal) – Genesis 4 Cain kills Abel.

Colleges offer majors related to each of the seven areas above (e.g. doctors, psychologists, sociologists, environmentalists, ministers, philosophers, law enforcement).

Extended Results in Genesis 4

Corresponding with reality on every corner of the globe throughout all of human history, the results observed in the first offspring of Adam and Eve are tragic universal expressions of human existence: rebellion, anger, envy, hatred, bitterness, lying and murder. One can only imagine the grief that filled Eve’s heart at the death of her second-born son (Abel) at the hands of her first-born son (Cain). It is without irony that Cain is identified as a member of Satan’s family (I John 3:11-13cf. John 8:44).

Think about it

Because we were made in the image and likeness of God, we see benevolent acts of goodness and heroism among humans. Because we are fallen, we observe (and participate in) malevolent acts and vast degrees of evil and violence on earth.

“According to Genesis 3, sin appeared very early in the history of our race. In this chapter our first parents try to be ‘like God, knowing good and evil,’ and succeed only in alienating themselves from God and from each other. They choose to believe the tempter rather than their Maker and turn their garden into a bramble patch.  The good and fruitful earth becomes their foe (Genesis 3:17-18; cf. 4:11-14), and their own sin then rises in a terrible crescendo.  Adam and Eve’s pride and disbelief trigger revolt, scapegoating, and flight from God (Gen. 3:4-5, 10, 12-13). Their first child ups the ante: Cain resents and kills his brother, Abel, launching the history of envy that leads to murder. Like his parents and the rest of the race, Cain refuses to face his sin (‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’) and is exiled by God to a place ‘east of Eden.’ In a phrase that suggests the restlessness of all who are alienated from God, Cain becomes ‘a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth’” (Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be).

Steve Cornell