I’ve met more than my fair share of Christians who have played “Bible roulette.” Treating the Bible more or less like a lucky deck of cards, they flip through the pages and throw their finger down on a random text they hope will supply them an answer or a sense of comfort.
The problem with this game is not that we are turning to God’s word for inspiration—that, at least, is commendable. The problem is Bible roulette rips Scripture out of its context. Hoping to receive some immediate insight, we plop our finger down on the page giving no thought to what the passage actually is trying to convey, no thought to what the author intended to say, but hoping the text might convey something important to us in our life situation. We short-change the hard work of interpretation and jump immediately to application.
Being honest, I played Bible roulette on more than one occasion in my youth. I like to tell myself I’m too old for that kind of foolishness now. But when I look closer, I realize how often I still approach the Bible with a similar mentality, especially when looking for peace for my troubled conscience. I’ll explain..
When I feel the sting of guilt rise up in me for some recently committed sin, I rush to the Scriptures to look for comfort. I tell myself this is commendable because I am trying to take refuge in God’s Word. But as I flip to well-known gospel promises and favorite passages, I have to admit, at times I treat the Bible like a mystical book. I find a text promising hope, renewal, or peace and I chew on it, hoping the mere recitation of words will soothe my guilty conscience.
The great Puritan preacher John Owen speaks to this in his book, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers. Over the last several months we have been unpacking this book, chapter by chapter. This week we look at chapter 13 where Owen gives another direction to us about how to slay the power of sin.
Direction #11: Do not speak peace to yourself before God speaks it.
When we sin against God, He graciously speaks peace to our troubled consciences. He is the “God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). Isaiah the prophet says the Holy One who “inhabits eternity” also dwells with those of a contrite and lowly spirit to revive their hearts, to lead them and restore comfort to them (Isaiah 57:14-18). He sovereignly “creates” (v.19) this peace in our troubled hearts.
But we can also drum up peace within ourselves, quieting our own guilty consciences. When we do this, we are in effect hardening our hearts to the deep surgery God wants to do.
The trick is this: How do we know when the peace we feel is from God or from ourselves?
In His goodness, God helps His children know the difference between self-generated peace and divine peace. “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Psalm 25:9).
1. God’s Peace is Accompanied with Hatred of Sin
When our consciences are weighed down with guilt, it is natural to want relief. As Christians we know the only relief for sin is found in the blood of Christ, so in our guilt we run to His promises of forgiveness in the gospel. We aim to squeeze from these promises a sense of peace to quiet our hearts. We search the Scriptures for a promise from God that seems to apply to our situation, and when we find something, we use it like a big bandage to cover our wound. But if it the peace is not from God, it is only a covering, but we do not have the necessary ointment that will treat the infection. It may feel for a time like the fresh breeze of God’s Spirit, but just like Elijah on the mountain, the Lord is not in the wind (1 Kings 19:11).
Owen warns us, if the peace we feel in our souls is not accompanied by “the greatest detestation” and a “thorough abhorrency”of our sin, then we are only trying to heal ourselves. Whatever peace we may feel in the moment is not God’s peace, but our own. Those who do this may pray for mercy, yet they “keep the sweet morsel of their sin under their tongue.”
When Israel was disobedient, God rebuked them with terrifying judgments, and so the psalmist says, “they repented and sought God earnestly” (Psalm 78:34). But this repentance was only skin deep: “Their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not faithful to his covenant” (v.37). Whatever peace they found seeking God, it did not last.
This is the nature of the New Covenant. When the prophet Ezekiel foretold the coming of the “everlasting covenant,” he said, “you will remember your ways and be ashamed” (Ezekiel 16:60-61). When God moves in us to look to the crucified Christ for mercy, the prophet Zechariah says we will also “mourn for Him” (Zechariah 12:10), because we know it is our sin that has wounded Him. When Job finally repented he cried out, “I despise myself” (Job 42:6)—this is the nature of Spirit-inspired repentance and peace.
2. God’s Peace Comes by Waiting on Him
Owen says God’s peace commonly comes in “that peculiar acting of faith” called waiting. The Scriptures are filled with examples of men of God who knew this discipline of waiting for the Lord “more than watchmen for the morning” (Psalm 130:6), who looked to the hand of their Master “as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress” (Psalm 123:2). Owen writes, “God will have his children lie a while at his door when they have run from his house, and not instantly rush in upon him.”
The core issue is one of attitude: when we are hurried and rushed for peace, grasping for a quick fix or experiential buzz from God’s Word, it shows we are not concerned mostly about being reconciled to God as much as we are concerned with simply feeling better.
But when God speaks, His words do good to our souls (Micah 2:7). He moves our heart and affections. He makes us delight in his love, displacing our love of sin. “In God’s speaking peace,” Owen says, “there comes along so much sweetness, and such a discovery of his love, as is a strong obligation on the soul no more to deal perversely.”
3. God’s Peace Brings Lasting Change
“God’s peace is a humbling peace,” Owen writes, “a melting peace.” When God speaks, He causes our hearts to burn within us (Luke 24:32). His peace is a byproduct of genuine heart-change. When God speaks His peace, He speaks it also “to endear, to cleanse, to melt and bind to obedience, to self-emptiness.”
Human peace does not last and it does not transform. The prophet Jeremiah warned the inhabitants of Judah that a time of judgment was coming. Idolatry and injustice were everywhere, and after generations of sin, God was going to level Jerusalem to the ground and send His children into exile. Despite this warning, there were many false prophets in Jeremiah’s day who prophesied, saying, “Peace, peace.” These were soothing words that offered cheap peace to the souls of Jerusalem, but it would not last. “They have healed the wound of my people lightly,” Jeremiah said (Jeremiah 8:11). Abomination was in their midst (v.12), but rather than stressing the seriousness of sin, these false prophets fed the people calming words their itching ears wanted to hear.
Pastor John Piper calls it a “tragically light healing” when Christian leaders feed our desire for cheap and temporary peace:
I take this to refer to leaders who should be helping the church know and feel the seriousness of indwelling sin (Rom. 7:20), and how to fight it and kill it (Rom. 8:13). Instead the depth and complexity and ugliness and danger of sin in professing Christians is…psychologized as a symptom of woundedness rather than corruption.
This is a tragically light healing. I call it a tragedy because by making life easier for ourselves in minimizing the nature and seriousness of our sin, we become greater victims of it. We are in fact not healing ourselves. Those who say that they already feel bad enough without being told about the corruptions of indwelling sin misread the path to peace. When our people have not been taught well about the real nature of sin and how it works and how to put it to death, most of the miseries people report are not owing to the disease but its symptoms. They feel a general malaise and don’t know why, their marriages are at the breaking point, they feel weak in their spiritual witness and devotion, their workplace is embattled, their church is tense with unrest, their fuse is short with the children, etc. They report these miseries as if they were the disease. And they want the symptoms removed.
We proceed to heal the wound of the people lightly. We look first and mainly for circumstantial causes for the misery—present or past. If we’re good at it, we can find partial causes and give some relief. But the healing is light.
Owen reminds his readers of both the holiness and the mercy of God: “God will justify us from our sins, but he will not justify the least sin in us.” God longs to be gracious to His people, but He will not supply peace to the soul that wants to cling to sin even in the smallest way.
The Secret Instinct of Faith
The generation of Israel that left Egypt heard God’s wonderful words, but, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, “the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it” (Hebrews 4:2, NKJV). When we retreat to God’s gospel promise to find comfort and peace for our guilty hearts, Owen says we must feed on the promise mixing it with faith so “all the virtue of it [is] diffused into your soul.”
When God brings His peace, “there is, if I may so say, a secret instinct of faith, whereby it knows the voice of Christ when he speaks indeed.”
Questions for Personal or Group Reflection:
1. Have you ever looked to God’s word for comfort without waiting on God’s Spirit to comfort you?
2. Think about Owen’s statement: “God will justify us from our sins, but he will not justify the least sin in us.” How is this quote both challenging and comforting?
3. Read John Piper’s quote again about receiving only a “light healing.” Have you ever been encouraged (by friends or by a church) to brush aside your feelings of guilt by downplaying the seriousness of sin?
. . . .