Christianity 201

April 25, 2011

Spiritual Relapse

Today’s post first appeared at Thinking Out Loud under the title Spiritual Recidivism.

I remember the first time I heard the term recidivism, it was in the context of American federal prisons, as the word can be used to describe the situation where, after serving time, prisoners re-offend and are re-incarcerated. It’s a term I would image Chuck Colson‘s Prison Fellowship ministry discusses frequently.

Not being an expert, I can only guess at a few sample reasons why people might follow their previous paths and end up back in jail:

  • Crime is the only life they know; they haven’t been placed in a new direction or given enough new life skills, and they simply return to what they know.
  • They actually “learn” crime in prison from listening to other inmates; or they idolize other prisoners and see their exploits as something worth trying.
  • They fall back among former friends — people who didn’t do hard time — and get caught up in their lifestyle of illegal activities.
  • They either consciously or subconsciously miss the security and routine of prison life and/or feel “lost” in the outside world and are simply either expecting or hoping to get caught again.

Those are just some sample ideas, I’m sure there are more.

But I am equally guilty of recidivism.

I sin, and then I sense God dealing with me about it, and I repent and I abstain from that sin for a season, but then that temptation might call out to me. I’m not thinking of anything recent here, but it’s a pattern that most Christ-followers — including the Apostle Paul — are familiar with. I’m told that some sects — particularly the Catholic church’s earliest concepts of confession, and certain aspects of Mormon doctrine — teach that once confessed, you really shouldn’t sin the same sin twice.

So why do we?

Let’s see if we can follow the pattern above and get some insights:

  • A lifestyle of sin is deeply ingrained. This is where Charismatics and Pentecostals (among others) would say there is a need for something that goes beyond confession: Deliverance.
  • We actually “learn” sin from hanging around with other Christians who, instead of lifting us up, bring us down. Or, freed from one area of temptation, we don’t realize that without God filling the emotional or spiritual voids that exist, we are leaving ourselves open for other types of sin or distraction.
  • We go back to the people we knew before we determined to live a life of intentional spiritual formation. This includes people in the church who are simply not committed. It can also include media influences.
  • If we get deeply enough entrenched in a sinful lifestyle, we can become numbed to guilt, and our sin feels comfortable and enjoyable. Momentarily, the pleasures of sin outweigh the joy and satisfaction found in letting God direct our paths.

Here’s the full text from Paul I alluded to earlier:

NIV Romans 7:15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?

To amend George Santayana’s well known quotation: “Those who fail to learn the lessons of their personal history are doomed to repeat them. “

Do you find yourself running down the same sin rabbit trails? Just as spring is bringing new life to the northern hemisphere, allow God to help you break free and enjoy spiritual new life.

…If a search engine brought you to this post, maybe God is trying to tell you something. Click here to watch a brief presentation on giving Him control of your life.

February 28, 2011

Christ-Centered Accountability

Sometimes I think I need to try harder to make this blog live up to its name. Then there are topics like this one, where I feel maybe this is more like Christianity 301 for some people. Stay with me here…

Tullian Tchividjian, who, not that it matters, is a grandson of Billy Graham; and who, it does matter, is the pastor of Florida’s prestigious Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, has a couple of articles I want you to link to today.

The first one, on the surface of it anyway, looks at “accountability groups;” the kind of small group thing that Tullian says end up more focused on our sin than on our Savior.  In so doing, he says, they actually may be making people feel worse.

All the “good stuff” that is ours already in Christ settles at the bottom when we focus on ourselves more than Jesus (after all, Peter only began to sink when he took his eyes off Jesus and focused on his performance). John Owen said, “Holiness is nothing but the implanting, writing, and realizing of the gospel in our souls.” And what is the gospel? Not my work for Jesus, but Jesus’ work for me…

He says that we need reminders, not rebukes; and we need to get away from the mentality that says we need to fix people.

What Paul did for the Colossians is what we all need our Christian brothers and sisters to do for us as well: remind me first of what’s been done, not what I must do. So, while rebukes are sometimes necessary, reminders are far more effective in the long run.

Take 3-4 minutes to read that article, in its entirety here.

Now, I’m sure that someone reading this is going to say, “But I’m a part of an accountability group, and it has been most helpful to us; and I’ve encouraged others to do the same.”

Tullian wasn’t knocking the groups per se, but rather the tendancy of some to move in a specific direction. But it caused quite a stir, and in the comments section he offered this clarification:

…It’s not accountability in general (I mention the friends and family that continue to help me grow) but the kind of accountability groups like the ones I specifically mentioned (believe it or not, these are much more commonplace than you may realize!) that end up being more of a hindrance to our growth, than they are a help. These groups foster the kind of guilt, legalism, narcissism and morbid introspection that are antithetical to growth in the gospel. It’s very telling, for instance, that in Galatians 5:4-5 the Apostle Paul describes falling from grace, not in terms of immorality or godless living, but legalism.

I call for accountability in this post, but a certain kind of accountability–the kind that forces us to reckon with the scandalous nature of God’s unconditional love for us because of Christ’s finished work on our behalf. I believe in the need to repent and to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16).

I can personally attest to the tendency of certain groups to get off their original focus and away form their primary design.

Take 2-3 minutes to read the follow-up article on his blog.

Here’s a parallel observation that didn’t form part of his article, but which I believe applies here:

Lots of men (and some women) struggle with online addiction to websites with sexual content. Many groups work very hard to try to help such people wrestle themselves away from such internet locations. It’s not easy. But some take another approach and stress the character of God, in particular his omnipresence. The idea is that if you really, really, really believe that God is with you; that he is right next to you as you sit at your computer; you won’t go to those sites. This approach is effective for many people.

Even here it’s easy to remember the illustration and miss the point: That remembering the character and attributes of God is possibly more effective than simply calling on God’s power to help us break free of a controlling habit. The latter will work in many cases, but remembering the character of God gives us a greater reason to want to make a rapid life change.