The trunk of my car has become a dusty den for baseball equipment. Every now and again I get adventurous and dive into it to try to secure some long cast-off relic of diamond lore, only to get distracted by the tokens of my past that lead me down memory lane like bread crumbs. If I ever have a flat tire, my plan is to simply abandon the car rather than try to sort out all of my trunk treasures to get to the spare tire.
Amidst the gathering of gear sits no fewer than three sets of catcher's equipment. Complete with mask, chest protector and shin guards they remain at the ready to enter the fray at any moment. But they don't. They remain in the trunk. A hidden away gem of potential protection. They are designed to transform the pint-sized catcher into a fearless gladiator clad with armor of plastic and metal. As they collect dust in the back of my car, they remain plastic and metal but they are far from providing defense. The bits of athletic armor offer the promise of deflecting fastballs and foul tips but remain little more than a theory. They are a likely source of usefulness on the baseball field that are yet unrealized. They could as easily be on the shelf of the used equipment store as in my possession – their impact is the same.
What I see often in my own life and in the life of others is that there is a correlation between the tangible yet ineffective catcher's gear in my car and the true yet unused presence of our spiritual protection. You see, when I trot a kiddie catcher out on the field, I don't send him out there with a, “Go get 'em! Don't be afraid of the ball! I have equipment in my car that is designed to protect you!” I put the equipment on him! I make sure he knows how it fits. I make sure it's snug. I make sure he knows how to use it – when to take off his mask, how to properly use the chest protector to block a bad pitch. Simply, the presence of protective gear is pointless unless the little guy uses it.
In Ephesians 6:10-20 Paul takes on the stance of a coach or manager, as it were, to explain to his beloved Ephesian friends that they are in the game! (That may be the first step. We're not all spiritual Little League right-fielders that should have to be reminded that there is a game happening.) And not only are they in the game, there is an opponent! And that opponent will stop at nothing to win. There is no sportsmanship in him. BUT, they have at their disposal protection against every kind of offense the opponent may try to use against them. Not only that, but they have an OFFENSIVE weapon to use against him so that, at the end of the game there will be one combatant standing and one defeated. If they use the protection given to them, they will “be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.”
The analogy of a baseball game to the spiritual battle is a pretty weak one. We don't shake hands after our spiritual battle in a show of sportsmanship. The victor of the spiritual battle doesn't get a trophy, they get life. The loser is destroyed. But that makes it all the more important that we understand the importance of having not just knowledge of our spiritual armor, but that we USE it. The fact that there is protection against all of the adversary's tactics is of no benefit if it is merely a theory. If I send my big boy backstop out to play and he squats behind the plate without his equipment – he's going to get ABUSED! He will take so many shots off of his chest, arms and face that he will come back to the dugout, shoot me a nasty glare through partially swollen eyes and leave the field thinking that is what baseball is like. In the spiritual battle, we may have a similar experience if we take to the field unprotected and unaware while dusty armor rests in the trunk of our memory.
Let us be aware of the battle and stand in the protection of the “strength of his might.”
It's election season. Time for endless bouts of “he said / he said” when nothing that was really said gets said. Every four years we hold a bachelor auction for the leader of the free world. Contestants strut across the stage trying to look the part. A bevy of under-paid attendants with clipboards study the crowd's every move to see which wardrobe to wear and what words evoke emotion. We poke and prod the candidates from every angle while they whirl around the room trying to keep their good side in the best light. The goal is to look appealing long enough to get the greater part of the admiring milieu to check a box, complete a line, punch a card, flip a lever next to their name. This is part of the beauty of a democratic system – the “power” can be said to rest ultimately with the people. We CHOOSE who we want to represent us. Or at least 49.5% of us choose who will represent us. That is the question being asked and answered through the seemingly perpetual campaign cycle, “Who do YOU THINK would do the best job?” (Nevermind that many are likely to actually answer the question, “Who do YOU THINK looks the most like a President?”) As much as we may want to brandish the label of a capitalist, socialist or even communist – our vote is cast as a narcissist. When we cast a vote, we are saying, “This is what I THINK is best.” Even if we are not voting for a platform that affords the best opportunity for our own personal comfort, we are saying, “This is what I THINK is best for ALL of us.” It is what a democratic republic is predicated upon. We all, at some level (even if it is as a single vote among a throng of other votes), have the option to voice our approval of one candidate over another. We have the chance to let our voice be heard and put in our opinion.
A danger of living according to the rules of a democratic society in the world (at least for a disciple of Jesus Christ) is that we begin to apply the same representative government system to our true Kingdom home under the reign of King Jesus. You can hear it in some of our terminology. We may not realize it, but there is an undercurrent of “rule by decree of the people” in the way we describe our coming to faith. How often have you heard a plea to, “Make Jesus the Lord of your life” or the like? The problem with that call is that you don't vote for Jesus. Jesus is not the King of Kings at your approval. He IS the King! You can approve or not approve – it doesn't affect His office, only your relation to His office. Therefore, Jesus doesn't campaign. He doesn't pander. He doesn't solicit votes. There is a reason that God chose to come in the flesh into a system of government that would not be confused by the idea of a king. The democratic ideal of personal choice and representation is a wonderful ideal among men who are equal. But in the economy of the Kingdom, we are not dealing with equal entities. We are not God's equals. We are His subjects. He rules by the power of His own wisdom. As the Psalmist writes, (in comparing the Almighty to the metal gods of the nations) “Our God is in the heavens, he does all that he pleases.” In Romans 11, Paul quotes both Isaiah and Job in asking, “who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” Job would go on to ask, “who can say, 'You have done wrong'?” This should be terrifying to men! And it would be DEBILITATING if not for the decrees that this benevolent sovereign has made.
The INCREDIBLE Gospel is that this self-approving ruler of all creation of whom it is said, “he does all he pleases” has also decreed all of Isaiah 53! Here the prophet declares that it was this same King's will to crush the servant (Himself!) and to make his life an offering for sin and that he has laid on this servant the iniquity of us all. He has also decreed that whoever believes in Son will not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). He has decreed that whoever believes in their heart that God raised Christ from the dead and confesses with their mouth that Jesus is Lord will be saved (Romans 10:9). He has decreed that all that the Father has given to the Son will come to Him and that whoever comes to him he will never cast out (John 6:37)! He doesn't ask for your vote to be the sacrifice for sin – He decrees it!
The decrees of the King do not require your ascent but your surrender. You don't vote for the Sovereign, you bow before Him. Maybe that's a total change of perspective or maybe it's just a subtle change of terminology – but it's a radical form of government.
I had written a completely different article. I was initially writing directly in response to something that had been written recently by a "Cool Dad" about his approach to finding that his son had been viewing inappropriate media on the Internet. But as I wrote I began to realize that the issue at heart was not merely a "how do I talk to my son about porn?" question but really it was a question of how we address sin at all levels.
If you haven't read the post in question I recommend that you take a few minutes and do so. That will give you an idea of the alternative that this particular father chose to use. I'll summarize my take on what he wrote. He does a great job of approaching his son with respect and taking into account what might open further conversation. His reply was loaded with grace. I am fairly certain he and I may be trying to accomplish different things with our sons, though. Our differing goals will give some context to my further analysis. In his approach, Cool Dad goes beyond grace to facilitation. In essence, he downplays the action and rather tries to redirect it to more acceptable perversion. It might be something like trying to get an alcoholic to switch to 2.0 beer.
I think his approach may be more effective than the all-out guilt barrage to which we as parents sometimes default, but in truth, neither of them provides a true remedy for victorious living in the battle against sin. At this point I need to diverge from dealing with Cool Dad's approach because he apparently does not view his son's activity as sin (or at least didn't communicate as much on the internet) and therefore won't address it the same way.
My goal with my kids (and for myself) is not moral conformity devoid of reason nor is it "more acceptable" sins. My goal is that my kids and I grow more and more in our knowledge of Christ and our understanding of and love for his surpassing glory and what He has done to show us that glory.
To that end, it seems to me that I have a few wide categories of responses to sinful activity in the life of my son that are at my disposal:
Man-centered guilt: I can go the route of shame. I can talk about how disappointed I am and how disappointed God is. In fact, with religious kids, I don't even have to talk about God being disappointed. They will project the reaction of their earthly father onto their Heavenly Father on their own. The problem here is that while knowing the gravity of sin is essential, it is not the Gospel. Often what is bred in heavy-handed shame is not a desire for righteousness but compartmentalizing, secrecy and deceit. If my actions bring pain to the ones I love, then I will not be honest about them but rather try to battle them in seclusion - which is where our accusing adversary the devil thrives. He pulls us out of relationship with each other and with God and feasts on us with shame and guilt while whispering to us that sin is "just who (we) are." Soon we find ourselves estranged from God, seeing him as a disappointed father while we endeavor to win back his love by being good - only to find that we can't be.
Man-centered grace: This is the best way I could categorize Cool Dad's approach. I could be so supposedly concerned with my son's sense of acceptance that I completely disregard or downplay an action in his life that could lead to his spiritual death. In truth, this is not graceful at all. If I take this approach, I communicate to my son that his feeling accepted by me is more important than his KNOWING he is accepted by God by virtue of the accepted Christ. It is something more than curiosity that leads us to pursue sin. My son is looking for his identity. He may be looking for the acceptance that he does not know in the vaporous facade of two-dimensional images. If I merely assuage his guilt and point him in a "more-acceptable" direction I only push him further down the fatal path of chasing a shadow of wholeness in idols that will steal his life. It is a bitter irony of our age that, in order to combat what we see a low self-esteem, we have esteemed ourselves higher than ever and the one thing that cannot be tolerated is that I “feel bad” about something I have done.
Gospel-centered grace: A third alternative is the one I believe God employs with his children and therefore the one I want to aim at with my own. The problem that is presenting itself my children or I or anyone is seeking identity from something outside of Christ is not simply of wrong action, but of wrong affection. Simply, as C.S. Lewis coined, “We are far too easily pleased.” God employs conviction. God expresses grace. But He does both for a reason that is not centered on man but on Himself. HE is the satisfaction for his children. When I pursue sinful behaviors, I am sacrificing the ultimate for the immediate. The remedy is not to feel bad or to re-double my efforts in abstinence nor is it to simply assume that these passions are “who I am” and therefore acceptable to God. What is being revealed in a pursuit of sin is that I am not satisfied with the glory of Christ. Scripture's prohibitions come with a promise of something greater. It is a “this not that” admonition, not simply a “don't do that” command. To the issue at hand – when I discover that my son (or anyone) has been lured by pornography, my response is not simply “don't do that or I will punish you...” or “it's totally natural, God understands...” but “let's not settle for less. Sin gives Satan the open door he wants to separate you from the all-encompassing, beyond-comprehension love of God. Let's not give him that opportunity.”
For you moms and dads who may be dealing with the issue of pornography either personally or with your children or both, let me encourage you that the true remedy takes time. Guilt and giving up are “quick fixes” that fix nothing. That said, be wise. Build in some safeguards for both you and your children WHILE you seek to cultivate a love for Christ in you both. I highly recommend a resource that we have recently begun using at our house. OpenDNS (www.opendns.com) provides a free, router-based (meaning all the devices in your house that access the internet will have the same protection) utility that is customizable even with time restrictions. It's easy to set up and appears to be very effective.
Rather than guilt, let's talk about promised freedom. Rather than man-centered grace, let's talk about Christ-purchased redemption. Above all, pray for your children. Pray for yourself. Pray that the love for God will dwell in us richly and the sweetness of uninterrupted relationship with Him be the surpassing desire of our hearts.
A long time ago (the last time I wrote), I think I mentioned that I am not a huge fan of yard work. I have contacted Mark Zuckerberg to offer him untold hundreds of cents to finally key in the code for a “dislike” button on Facebook just so I could create a page for yard work and then publicly go on record with my disdain. As everyone knows, once something goes live on Facebook, it is a cold, hard fact that would stand up to the most brutal cross-examination. I have yet to hear back from Mark. Maybe I need to up the ante... he seems a little strapped for cash... Offering Zuckerberg money is probably like offering to help Bono get noticed.
But, despite my adversarial relationship with the agricultural arts, there are still times when I have to go out and mow my lawn or risk having the city put one of those cool stickers on my door that says, in effect, “These people moved and now we have to take care of their lawn. Give us a call when you begin to hear jungle sounds.”
My typical routine is to find something to keep me relatively busy until the sun starts to egress from the sky. My former lawn (the last one I mowed) was fairly large and it would take me the better part of four hours to mow it all. Throw in the occasional edging and we were looking at a quarter-day investment of time. So, if I started my landscaping activity as the sun waned, the chances are that I would run out of daylight before I ran out of grass and I would be able to cut short my dance of dislike. One particular night this was exactly the case. I had started mowing later in the day. I had finally given in to the truth that I could no longer try to pass off the shoots of grass that were cascading over the curb as “native ivy” or my backyard as a “natural grass reserve”...
I started with my normal routine - set the mower up one notch higher so I still wouldn't have to bag it and there wouldn't be any huge hay bales left over when I was done. Next, dart off over the turf in a serpentine motion chasing the high spots. I had no designs on being able to tackle the back yard on the same day. If I was able to get the entire front lawn covered, I could have a clear conscience as I joined in the neighborhood disappointment in “those people who don't take care of their lawns.” As the time past, though, I discovered I was going to have a problem. Sunlight was disappearing faster then my lawn edge! I had been able to get through clipping the front lawn and had zealously moved on to the edge. Being on a corner lot, there was a LOT of edge to do! I had worked my way through about half of the distance nearest my house when I realized that there was NO way I was going to be able to complete the entire edge. Knowing this, I made the only decision that a horticultural hypocrite can make – I decided to stop work where I was and move the the edge at the street. You know, the one everyone can see. The one that would make the greatest impression on the casual passersby. “If I can at LEAST get the edge cut at the street”, I thought, “then people will think I take care of my lawn. I just don't have time to ACTUALLY take care of it. And it's just not that important to me.”'
So there you have it. When push comes to shove and a decision has to be made, what is revealed is that I don't REALLY care about my yard. But I do care that you think that I care about my yard. I had to chuckle at myself as I finished cutting an edge that looked like it had been crafted by someone with vertigo. How often is this same veneer of virtue applied to my spiritual life? How often do I care about my spiritual health simply because the community I live in values it? Have I been equally lax in caring for my relationship with God – putting off the real work with busyness? When it comes to the heart of it, am I more concerned with the actual state of my fellowship with the Father or with your perception of my spiritual health?
May our labor this week be motivated by a response to God's great grace and not a desire for men's admiration.
About Jay Sampson
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