It’s enough to drive a man crazy
It’ll break a man’s faith
It’s enough to make him wonder
If he’s been sane
When he’s bleating for comfort
From Thy staff and Thy rod
And the heavens’ only answer
Is the silence of God
– Andrew Peterson –
Have you ever cried out to God to take away some habitual sin, only to be met with silence? When it seems like we’ve tried everything to rid ourselves of our compulsions, why doesn’t God stoop down from heaven and change us?
When our hearts are gripped by the power of some particular sin, it is so easy to become myopic in our vision. We feel trapped in an endless cycle of indulgence, obsession, and fury on one end, and short-lived sobriety and vigilance on the other.
Author Nate Larkin understands this cycle and talks about it in his story of pornography addiction:
I didn’t just like porn; I became obsessed with it. And it eventually took me places I never intended to go. So before I know it, I’m a pastor, married, three kids—and I’m picking up my first hooker on the way to lead a candlelight service on Christmas Eve.
I only lasted five years in the ministry. I was never caught, but I was terrified of losing my reputation. My life was out of control. I’d lost any hope that I could stop what I was doing, so I bailed on the ministry…
Those were dark years. My life got smaller and smaller. I hated what I was doing. I remember so many times screaming at God as I pulled away from some place I shouldn’t have been, banging on the steering wheel, saying, “Take this away! I don’t want to do this anymore.” He never answered that prayer. Eventually, I concluded that He didn’t care, or He didn’t exist.
Today, I’m so glad He didn’t answer that prayer…
Because of my addiction I now understand that only God is the center of things. He’s actually used my addiction for good: because of it I’ve been forced to join the human race and surrender to a Power greater than myself…
I don’t think I ever really met Jesus until I stepped out of my church persona and became just another desperate, broken man. That’s when He really became real to me.
(Watch the whole video testimony)
As Nate’s testimony implies, sometimes there is something greater at stake than merely the sin that troubles us; there is a deeper surgery God wants to perform.
Over the last couple months we’ve been slowly working through the great Puritan classic by John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. Last week we looked at Owen’s first general direction: we must first be a true believer in Christ if we are going to kill sin. This week we are looking at chapter 8 of his book, looking at his second general direction.
Direction #2: Don’t be choosy about which sins you slay
Owen says believers must be diligent in “a universality of obedience.” Christians need to be burdened to slay all sin in their lives, not just the sins that rob them of personal peace.
[A particular lust] is powerful, strong, tumultuating, leads captive, vexes, disquiets, takes away peace; he is not able to bear it; wherefore he sets himself against it, prays against it, groans under it, sighs to be delivered: but in the meantime, perhaps, in other duties—in constant communion with God—in reading, prayer, and meditation—in other ways that are not of the same kind with the lust wherewith he is troubled—he is loose and negligent. Let not that man think that ever he shall arrive to the mortification of the lust he is perplexed with. This is a condition that not seldom befalls men in their pilgrimage.
In other words, it is easy, when a particular sin has the spotlight, to focus all our mental and emotional energy on it. When physical lust is burdensome to us, we may neglect the sin of prayerlessness. When anger or impatience weighs on our consciences, we might pay no attention to greed or laziness. When we are troubled about how we treat our neighbor, we might pay no attention to our lack of love for God. True mortification cannot happen unless we are diligent in holistic obedience to God.
There is an underlying principle at work here. Owen believes sin really isn’t being mortified at all unless it stems from hatred of sin as sin. When we treat some sins as trivial, Owen reminds us, “Jesus Christ bled for them also.” When we fight against only particular sins this reveals something about us and our attitude: we only hate our behavior because it disturbs our own hearts, not because it grieves the Spirit of God. We fight particular sins because we love our own sense of well-being more than we love God.
Hatred of sin as sin, not only as galling or disquieting, a sense of love of Christ in the cross, lies at the bottom of all true spiritual mortification…If you hate sin as sin, every evil way, you would be no less watchful against everything that grieves and disquiets your own soul.
God’s Mercy in Our Misery
Perhaps God does not take away our addictions and most troubling sins because we have failed to grasp this principle. Perhaps God does not seem to answer our prayers for freedom because our most disturbing sins are the only things getting our attention. Owen writes,
Do you think he [God] will ease you of that which perplexes you, that you may be at liberty to that which no less grieves him? No. God says, “Here is one, if he could be rid of this lust I should never hear of him more; let him wrestle with this, or he is lost.”
God does not just want to cure one particular evil in us. He wants to cure our whole condition of sinfulness. When He sees we do not really hate sin as sin, many times He would rather us groan under the burden of our moral failure until we see this underlying disposition. God does not just want to take away our lust. He wants us to repent of the selfishness in our souls that cares more about the trouble of sin than the filth and offensiveness of it.
God might not take away our lust for a season because we have yet to really grasp the sinfulness of it. Yes, we might see it as burdensome or disturbing. Yes, it might weigh us down with guilt or shame. But we do not yet see it as an offense to God Himself, something He hates, something we do out of rebellion and self-worship.
It is only the unmerciful doctor who gives us medication to mask our troubling symptoms and never exposes the underlying disease. But the Great Physician of souls is a merciful doctor. When God allows particular sins to burden His children, it is out of His mercy and love. His scalpel is performing a deeper surgery.
Questions for Personal or Group Reflection:
1. What sins do you tend to highlight over others?
2. What do you tend to think about more: how much your sin troubles you or how much your sin grieves God?
3. How would meditating on Christ’s death for our sins help you to think more about the sinfulness of sin, not just how much it troubles you?
. . . .
Read all the posts in this series:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, and Part 15
Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary:
(Hosea 7:8-16) Israel was as a cake not turned, half burnt and half dough, none of it fit for use; a mixture of idolatry and of the worship of Jehovah. There were tokens of approaching ruin, as grey hairs are of old age, but they noticed them not. The pride which leads to break the law of God leads to self-flattery. The mercy and grace of God are the only refuge to which obstinate sinners never think of fleeing. Though they may howl forth their terrors in the form of prayers, they seldom cry to God with their hearts. Even their prayers for earthly mercies only seek fuel for their lusts. Their turning from one sect, sentiment, form, or vice, to another, still leaves them far short of Christ and holiness. Such are we by nature. And such shall we prove if left to ourselves. Create in us a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within us.