Last week I talked about holiness, and particularly what it is not. We can think ourselves holy by external comparisons with others when we base our perceived 'holiness' on what we do or don't do rather than what's in our hearts. We can deceive ourselves especially well if we maintain a little distance (and deafness) from God and assure ourselves that He is love and all is mercy and grace and He really doesn't mind how we act. We're covered.
I was arrested by a description of this thinking in Deuteronomy. The Law had just been explained to them. God's covenant with them had been carefully laid out. I am your God. Keep my commandments and you will live. Don't and you will die. And then these words: Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart." Deut.29:19
Notice that he's not necessarily saying this aloud. It's a heart thing.
If you've been a Christian for long you may recognize this kind of thinking. We can get comfortable with the idea that we are 'saved' and on our way to Heaven, and grow careless in the journey. We can grow lazy, discouraged, or cynical and imperceptibly we can begin to let distance come between us and God. Sin begins to feel at home in our hearts and we may not even notice it.
I've been challenged by my reading in Hebrews of late. This book is rife with warnings and encouragement about the deceitfulness of sin and the dangers of drifting, about the potential for our hearts to become hard and crusty and the imperative that we listen for God's voice today and encourage each other today, lest any be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Take care, brothers lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Heb.3: 12, 13
While I was exercising this week I listened to some excellent messages based on the opening chapters of Hebrews, messages with titles like Heed These Warnings, The Danger of Drifting, and Holding Firmly to the End.* It's impossible to read Hebrews and come away thinking you can just continue ambling along to Heaven with no particular care over how you walk, just so you prayed the 'salvation prayer' sometime in the past.
Sin is deceitful. It hardens our hearts. Hard hearts grow hard of hearing. Unless we hear God's voice how can we walk before Him in the obedience of faith? I especially appreciated this list of warning signs taken from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. It shows the trajectory that takes us away from the living God into the consequences of sin's deception:
#1 As our commitment begins to wane there will be a forgetfulness of God and a forgetfulness that one day we're going to meet Him "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God." Heb.10:31
#2 There will follow a gradual loss of private holiness, private prayer, the curbing of our lusts and genuine sorrow for our sins
#3 We will begin to avoid the company of 'lively' Christians.
(People who love Jesus will seem like fanatics to us.)
#4 There will be a disinterest in public worship.
(Though you may still attend, your heart will not be in it.)
#5 Finding fault in others will blind us to our own sins.
'There'll all a bunch of hypocrites!'
(When our eyes are fixed on Jesus we will be busy first with the planks in our own eyes!)
#6 We will prefer the company of the godless. (Ps.1)
(Our interests will be drawn to what the godless have to say and we may pursue old faithless associations we left behind.)
#7 We will be involved in fleshly lusts in secret.
(Secret sins will begin to hold us in their grip--Eph.5:12)
#8 We will begin to play with sin openly, losing our sense shame.
(We won't care what people think, but will be brazen in making our sin public.)
#9 We will become hardened eventually, revealing to all the sorry condition of our lives (I Tim. 4:1,2)
Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
I don't want to make headway down this path while I convince myself that “I am safe” though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart. I don’t want to miss knowing the heart of God who is the essence of holiness. I don't want to stand before Him and hear Him say: "I never knew you", or even to stand before His consuming fire and have all the deeds of my life burned up as loss (I Cor.3:15).
It's too easy for me to pat myself on the back and delude myself into thinking I'm some sort of "holy" based on things I don't do, or addictions I do not struggle with, and miss the rotten core at the center of my own nature.
So I've been asking God lately to reveal to me my sinfulness, not so I can grovel in shame but so that I will not be lulled by sin's deceitfulness into a false assurance of well-being ("It's all good!") while cultivating a stubborn heart that can no longer hear God's voice.
And God is answering that prayer, in the most unexpected of places.
There I was standing in line at Shopper's Drug Mart, impatient to pay for my jug of milk and get home... This was to be a quick stop. I'd intentionally avoided heading into the grocery store, too many steps to the dairy section, too many distractions enroute. I thought for sure here I'd be in and out in a flash! So I'd grab my jug of 2% and couldn't help seeing eggs on sale so picked up two dozen of those as well. And there was butter at a good price. Oh, and a pint of discounted cream. So I added these to my armload and hustled to the check-out only to step behind a gal with her shopping cart full to overflowing with Halloween candy. Not only that but in front of her was an elderly couple obviously in no rush...
What did my heart say? Rats! Wish this gal would let me go ahead of her. This milk's heavy, and cold... If she were nice she would let me go first...I bet she feels guilty standing there being so selfish...I would let me go first if I were her...
What did the Spirit say? No problem. You're not really in a hurry. And your hurry is no more important than hers. Why should you go first anyway? Who are you? Must the world revolve around you?
OK, so, that's right. New strategy. I'll be nice. I'll show her how nice I am. I'll show her I don't resent her standing there avoiding eye contact so she can pretend she doesn't know I'm here heavy-laden with my milk. I'll smile and chat it up with her. I'll be nice.
That strategy worked so well that we were quickly both at ease, her explaining that she works for a company that gives out candy on Halloween. Me affirming this nice idea and jokingly wondering how I could get in on the free candy. Fine. I was nice.
Enter sin. Oh how nice I am. She must think I'm so patient. The cashier must be grateful I am so patient...My oh my how nice I am... Not content to 'put on the new man', the old man must make a show of it, take credit for it, boast in it... Yes, Lord. That's wrong!
But then suddenly a new line opened up and the 'next in line' was invited to come over. By this time there were two or three people behind me diving for first place in the new line up. The gal with the cart of candy prompted me to take my rightful place there. I shrugged it off, said I was in no rush, and alluded to not wanting to be trampled by the 'herd'. Ah yes, gracious me. Sacrificing my rightful opportunity. Letting others go first. Waiting like a saint. Still smiling. No hurry here. Just look at me.
The action was right; I seemed to be putting others before myself. But the heart? To be honest, I wanted that place. I was in a hurry. I resented those folks for taking my place. The only reason I didn't try to claim my rightful place was fear of looking like a selfish fool! But I demeaned them in my mind, while I smiled a placid smile. (No rush here) and gloated over my external graciousness all the while...
Oh, Lord, have mercy on me. My heart is deceitfully wicked. Thank-you for the grace to respond rightly on the outside but I see my heart is not holy....
If Jesus were in my shoes, His actions may have looked similar but they would have flowed from a holy heart, a heart of love rather than self-interest, a heart not consumed with thoughts of self-importance (Phil.2).
I eventually paid for my things and went out to my car, not in shame but grateful and in awe that the Spirit is faithful in this process of sanctifying our hearts. He is faithful in very practical ways in very down-to-earth places. And I had heard His voice and not hardened my heart... This too is a mercy of God. I have seen a glimpse of my sinful heart and been awed by my Saviour, in the checkout line at the drug store.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Phil.2:12,13
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I John 1:8,9
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no "root of bitterness" springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. Heb.12:15-16
If you have not listened to Alistair Begg, you are in for a treat. Listen to his series of messages on Hebrews here: