A wretch like me

Only those whose “eyes have been opened” to the light of Christ rejoice to have their deeds exposed. It is baffling that our whole society knows and apparently loves the hymn “Amazing Grace.” What are people thinking of when they sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me”? The man who wrote the hymn was a slave trader who came to see the wickedness of his activities. Most of those who sing the hymn today know nothing of this background. It is startling to hear it robustly sung by people who are so imbued with today’s talk of self-esteem that one can’t imagine them identifying themselves as wretches. A chasm of incomprehension has opened up between the awe of the old slave trader who knew that he had been redeemed by Christ in spite of himself and the contemporary notion of a generalized sort of spiritual self-improvement. The joy of the hymn writer is specifically that of being released from the burden of sin. His gratitude is “for the means of grace and for the hope of glory.” The link between the confession of sin and a prevenient state of blessedness, however poorly understood today, remains indissoluble.

–Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion, 170.

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Temperament is a poor test of sanctification

…for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved. –2 Peter 2:19

The mortification of sin consists not in the improvement of a quiet, sedate nature. Some men have an advantage by their natural constitution so far as that they are not exposed to such violence of unruly passions and tumultuous affections as many others are. Let now these men cultivate and improve their natural frame and temper by discipline, consideration, and prudence, and they may seem to themselves and others very mortified men, when, perhaps, their hearts are a standing sink of all abominations. Some man is never so much troubled all his life, perhaps, with anger and passion, nor doth trouble others, as another is almost every day; and yet the latter hath done more to the mortification of the sin than the former. Let not such persons try their mortification by such things as their natural temper gives no life or vigor to. Let them bring themselves to self-denial, unbelief, envy, or some such spiritual sin, and they will have a better view of themselves.

–John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers

Self-love hates truth

The nature of self-love and of this human Ego is to love self only and consider self only. But what will man do? He cannot prevent this object that he loves from being full of faults and wants. He wants to be great, and he sees himself small. He wants to be happy, and he sees himself miserable. He wants to be perfect, and sees himself full of imperfections. He wants to be the object of love and esteem among men, and he sees that his faults merit only their hatred and contempt. This embarrassment in which he finds himself produces in him the most unrighteous and criminal passion that can be imagined; for he conceives a mortal enmity against that truth which reproves him, and which convinces him of his faults. He would annihilate it, but, unable to destroy it in its essence, he destroys it as far as possible in his own knowledge and in that of others; that is to say, he devotes all his attention to hiding his faults both from others and from himself, and he cannot endure either that others should point them out to him, or that they should see them.

. . . Man is then only disguise, falsehood, and hypocrisy, both in himself and in regard to others. He does not wish any one to tell him the truth; he avoids telling it to others, and all these dispositions, so removed from justice and reason, have a natural root in his heart. -Blaise Pascal, Pensées, #100

What Pascal called self-love and Ego, the Scriptures call pride. He offers no references but consider a few of the biblical proofs:

  1. Precisely because we hate attention being drawn to our imperfections, Proverbs is replete with appeals for us to receive discipline and instruction (Prov 1:7-8; 3:11; 6:23; 12:1; 17:10; 19:20).
  2. The natural desire to hide our faults from ourselves(!) and others explains the scarcity of confession in Christian fellowship, in spite of the commands and characterizations we find in Scripture (Prov 28:13; James 5:16; 1Jn 1:9 cf. Mark 1:5; Acts 19:18). Confession is the mortification of ego.
  3. Man’s desire to annihilate the truth is epitomized in the world’s hatred of Christ (Jn 7:7; 8:40ff).

Overcoming our aversion to truth is a conversion miracle out of which Christian fellowship flows (1Jn 1:6-7). Apart from this new life, Pensees #101 is axiomatic:

I set it down as a fact that if all men knew what each said of the other, there would not be four friends in the world.

The sin beneath the sin of cynicism

J.I. Packer cites Ecclesiastes(!) as his favorite book in the Bible and explains why in an interesting & helpful article at CT. The entire piece is worth reading but I especially appreciated how he describes cynicism against the backdrop of his own experience.

His basic description:

Cynics are people who have grown skeptical about the goodness of life, and who look down on claims to sincerity, morality, and value. They dismiss such claims as hollow and criticize programs for making improvements. Feeling disillusioned, discouraged, and hurt by their experience of life, their pained pride forbids them to think that others might be wiser and doing better than they themselves have done. On the contrary, they see themselves as brave realists and everyone else as self-deceived. Mixed-up teens slip easily into cynicism, and that is what I was doing.

His personal experience:

. . . I developed a self-protective sarcasm, settled for low expectations from life, and grew bitter. Pride led me to stand up for Christian truth in school debates, but with no interest in God or a willingness to submit to him. However, becoming a real as distinct from a nominal Christian brought change, and Ecclesiastes in particular showed me things about life that I had not seen before.

His conclusion:

Being too proud to enjoy the enjoyable is a very ugly shortcoming, and one that calls for immediate correction. Let it be acknowledged that, as I had to learn long ago, discovering how under God ordinary things can bring joy is the cure for cynicism.

The real eye-opener for me was Packer’s diagnosis of the sin beneath the sin of cynicism–namely, pride. If there’s a mask that pride can’t wear I haven’t found it yet.

‘We have all forgotten our names’

We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.

-G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Evil turned back on itself

Evil is conquered as evil because God turns it back upon itself. He makes the supreme crime, the murder of the only righteous person, the very operation that abolishes sin.

–Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross: An Analytical Look at the Problem of Pain

Good news: The heart wants what the heart wants!

It is seldom that any of our [bad habits or flaws] are made to disappear by a mere process of natural extinction. At least, it is very seldom that this is done through the instrumentality of reasoning…[or by] the mere force of mental determination. But what cannot be thus destroyed may be dispossessed–and one taste may be made to give way to another, and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind…. [T]he heart[‘s]…desire for having some one object or other, this is unconquerable…. [T]he only way to dispossess [the heart] of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one…. It is…when admitted into the number of God’s children, through the faith that is in Jesus Christ, [that] the spirit of adoption is poured upon us–it is then that the heart, brought under the mastery of one great and predominant affection, is delivered from the tyranny of its former desires, and is the only way in which deliverance is possible.

-Thomas Chalmers, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”

Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could

Sin aims always at the utmost; every time it rises up to tempt or entice, might it have its own course, it would go out to the utmost sin in that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could…every rise of lust, might it have its course, would come to the height of villany: it is like the grave that is never satisfied. And herein lies no small share of the deceitfulness of sin, by which it prevails to the hardening of men, and so to their ruin (Heb. 3:13) — it is modest, as it were, in its first motions and proposals, but having once got footing in the heart by them, it constantly makes good its ground, and presseth on to some farther degrees in the same kind.

–John Owen (1616-1683), Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers