Another Lenten season is upon us. As we prepare ourselves to gaze in awe at the Jesus crucified in our place, then raised to bring us new life, let us first turn our gaze inward to investigate the recesses of our own minds and hearts to discover any ways in which we may have gone off course and consider the process of reorientation.
Blurring the line between sin and righteousness
The Bible is filled with admonitions for Christians to abstain from sin. Believers affirm with our lips that sin is bad and righteousness is good. Sometimes, though, our classifications for that which is sinful become muddled. Perhaps there are places in our lives we have lingered too close and for too long near a once-clear border, so now our ability to see the border has all but disappeared. In other words, might we now have blind spots where once we had clarity? Might we now be desensitized in some areas where we once were sensitive to the Spirit’s guidance?
Here is a non-exhaustive set of practical “heart probe” questions to consider as we examine the condition, priorities and practices of our hearts in preparation for Easter:
On what do my thoughts and eyes linger and what consequences have I observed?
Tim Keller approached this topic saying, “In Joshua 7, Achan, against the command of the Lord, stole three valuable objects for himself during a military operation. He took the plunder for himself. When he was caught, he described how it happened. First, he gazed at the objects and assessed their value; and then he found himself desiring them; and, finally, he stole them. (Joshua 7:21) In other words, before he indulged in the kind of intense passionate lusting we might all recognize as temptation, he first gave himself the freedom to gaze and admire and ponder and imagine.
In the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus said we are not only to refrain from sex outside of marriage, but also must refrain from ‘looking with lust,’ as this is committing adultery ‘in the heart.’ (Matthew 5:28) So, while it is obvious that Scripture forbids sexually immoral behavior, Jesus also condemned a sexually immoral imagination, recommending the most proactive behaviors to avoid falling into sin. And in our highly sexualized culture it is almost impossible to avoid being confronted by pornography, in advertisements, digital and analog, as well as what passes for ‘entertainment.’
Surely these texts show us that we must be careful with how and where we allow our gaze to linger.”
Is there any practice or indulgence I keep secret from either my family at home or my church family in the areas of money or leisure or entertainment or _______?
This question is multi-faceted in its approach. First, it prods us to consider our underlying motivations for the things we hide from others. Are we treasuring secret habits or indulgences because we know they are sinful and we don’t want to be challenged to give them up? Or do we want help but our pride keeps us from the embarrassment that honest confession would entail?
Second, this question speaks to the consequences our sin has in relation to our place in community. The sin we hide and refuse to confess isolates us, splintering our unity with others. But staying in Christian community provides support and accountability. “You need more eyes than your own to help you walk right ... God will expose you to preserve you.” - Jackie Hill Perry
What content am I absorbing from movies, television, or my Internet usage today that a decade or more ago I would have found objectionable or sinful?
In his book, The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch expresses how our choice of media content can lead us toward a state of desensitization. Crouch states, “Twenty years ago The Sopranos was a critical favorite and audience hit in part because of its boundary-pushing depictions of sex and violence ... As I write, the hit show of the moment is Game of Thrones, whose levels of psychological drama, not to mention lurid sex, violence, and violent sex, make The Sopranos look like something from an age of innocence. A world in which The Sopranos can seem innocent is a world ratcheting its way toward being unable to be shocked by anything.”
Considering Crouch’s comments we must ask ourselves whether we have come to tolerate in our media consumption images or scenes which would have been categorized as pornography, brutality, or blasphemy in the past, but that we are now accepting under the guise of artistic license.
We, the body of Christ, must not become so jaded to the content to which we are exposing ourselves and our family that we risk losing our discernment to “call evil good and good evil.” (Isaiah 5:20) Staying sensitive to the nudges from the Holy Spirit when it comes to our media consumption means that we must have a regular practice of asking God to convict our hearts concerning the content we ingest.
How am I handling the temptations I face from the culture around me?
Am I regularly seeing God as ultimate or has my obedience to him become labored or lackadaisical? Do I really believe his plans are for my good or am I struggling to trust him? (Romans 8:28) Here is another way to consider this question: “When obedience to God contradicts what I think will give me pleasure, let me ask myself if I love him.” - Elisabeth Elliot
Sin is alluring
The saints of bygone years were not afraid to inventory their thoughts and their lives to discern whether they were living as would please God or not.
“In defiance of my best judgment...I find something within me which cherishes and cleaves to those evils from which I ought to be horrified by and flee from.” - John Newton
“Of all things difficult to rule, none were more so than my will and affections.” - Elisabeth Elliot
“My deepest love is for myself and my own will.” - Jack Miller
“In my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind making me a prisoner ... of sin.” - The Apostle Paul (Romans 7)
If you are struggling with attraction to sin, take heart, you are not alone. You are in the company of many saints before you and beside you. The temptation to choose our own desires over God’s desires originated in the Garden and it’s not going away until we exchange our sinful nature for glorification.
Learning to guard your heart: A gift you can give to God
Some practical ways to “guard (and reorient) our hearts” (Proverbs 4:23):
A consistent prayer life
Get so comfortable talking to God that you talk to him all day long. No one knows you as intimately as God and talking to him throughout your day is a healthy practice to cultivate.
Regular Scripture meditation
You can’t know how to obey God unless you are reading/meditating on his Word. (John 14:23) You also can’t know God unless you know his Word because his Word is part of God himself. (John 1)
Self-examination (in light of Scripture)
The intersection of your motives and behavior should be continually analyzed through the lens of Scripture. “Heart probing” questions (like those above) can help with this.
Christian community sharpens you, cares for you, keeps you accountable, and will point you to the hope of Christ.
Instilling spiritual disciplines
With spiritual discipline comes spiritual maturity. What does spiritual discipline look like practically? Plainly, when we don’t feel like obeying God or reading Scripture or praying, we do it anyway. Labored obedience eventually becomes a more habitual obedience. Thabiti M. Anyabwile encourages us by saying, “It is normal for Christians to grow, to work for growth, and to expect increasing spiritual maturity.”
Gazing on Christ
Look at the cross. See his body broken for you. Let this image be the driving force in moving your heart toward a desire for obedience in response to what Jesus, your savior, has done for you. You can never repay him for how he has suffered to remove the condemnation you were under; but you can daily look for ways to offer him the gift of obedience, as a child might offer his father a shiny pebble on the beach. In itself it will not buy the Father’s love, but in the offering love is given and received.
Many people “give up” something for Lent. The spiritual value of that can be debated, although practicing self-control is never a wasted effort. But ask yourself this:
What can you offer to God this Lenten season — and beyond — from your life?