Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 1 John 2:15 NIV
In the midst of a watching City, we long to become a different kind of people, a church that is reverent, changing, and true.
Nothing is more repulsive to a watching world than a church filled with people who pretend like they have arrived spiritually. These spiritual elites wear their moral superiority like a badge of honor. Like an elementary school hall monitor, they carry with pride a religious clipboard and make note of our moral infractions, constantly heralding the threat and curse of the Law: “Do this and die.”
American culture has had it with spiritual bullies. Sadly, the current rejection of Christianity in our culture is not a rejection of the Gospel on its own terms, but rather a rejection of legalism and spiritual pride. For what its worth, God abhors spiritual pride too.
If our culture is to begin to reconsider the claims of the Gospel, the Church will need to become a different kind of people. That process starts with spiritual humility. The Church needs to confess its own need of ongoing change. I am a sinner whose affections are not always set on what God desires or what is good for others. Too often, I desire what is good for me. Like a jackhammer removing stony debris, the Gospel is chipping away at the selfishness that exists at the core of my being. I expect that God will be doing this work for the remainder of my days. My heart will constantly be in need of change. By the power of the Good News of Jesus and the quiet work of the Holy Spirit, I will be changing.
As a pastor, I regularly meet with people who are struggling to change. Ugly attitudes and behavior regularly surface in our relationships. The moralist in me wants to simply tell people to stop. “Stop doing that. Stop thinking those lustful thoughts. Stop treating your wife that way. Stop being a lazy husband. Stop being self-righteous. Stop it or God will get you.” There is an inherent problem in this moralistic logic though. We sin because we like it. In fact, we love it. Our affections are deep-seated and strong. We lust to the destruction of our marriages because we think it brings us pleasure and the promise of escape from the harsh realities of life. We pursue material things into bankruptcy because we think they might bring sporadic happiness. We end up in bad relationships because at the outset they hold such hope for the unconditional love for which we so deeply long. Our affections for people, possessions, and pleasure are strong. But do they deliver what they promise? Inside those glimmering, shiny packages is there really something there that gives the fulfillment we desire? Or is the pleasure short-lived, lasting only for a season? Are we that blind to the destruction and emptiness that waits at the end of the pursuit? Divorce, bankruptcy, addiction, despair.
19th century Scottish pastor, Thomas Chalmers, wrote a masterful sermon entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” I’ll spell it in a few short bullet points.
- God alone is the heart’s best affection, the one for which we were all created.
- Because of sin and rebellion against God, the human heart, like a well-oiled machine, ruthlessly pursues other affections (people, possessions, pleasure, etc.)
- A moralist will attempt to change those sinful affections by simply stopping the behavior (i.e. lust, people-pleasing) and withdrawing from the world.
- The cessation of the pursuit of those affections creates a vacuum in the heart, resulting in pain and struggle.
- Unless a new and stronger affection, a better Lover, replaces the old, the heart will give up its resistance and return to the old behavior.
- The Gospel of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ is the new affection, the new Lover, that expels the old.
Real change only comes from the expulsive power of a new affection. If I am to overcome my struggles with lust, I must find a deeper love, a stronger passion. I must begin to realize the subtle lie that lust promotes. Lust fools me to think that it is the means to escape stress, the means through which deeper pleasure is to be found. Time and again I have found this to be a lie. Lust may bring fleeting temporary pleasure, but more often it delivers guilt, shame, anger, oppression, and pressure to my marriage.
Strangely, lust points me to the need for a deeper and better affection, a better Lover. Saint Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. Each of us has a God-shaped hole in our hearts that we try to fill with the wrong affections. We are like little children trying to cram a square block into a round hole. As I have learned to change in my own Christian life, it has come through that expulsive power of a new affection. The Law tells me stop lusting. It condemns me as guilty and leaves me powerless to change. As I’ve discovered the pleasure of knowing God personally in the person of Jesus Christ, as He is becoming my new affection, the old affections and temptations are losing their sway and appeal. They are not completely gone, but they are dying each day as I set my affections on the One worthy of them. The Gospel gives me the power to change because it gives me a relationship with the Ultimate Lover. I love how John Bunyan put it:
“Run John! Run! The Law commands, but gives me neither feet nor hands. Better news the Gospel brings! It bids me fly and gives me wings.”