The good news is that when you went through the gate, you were changed. You died to your old life and were raised to a new kind of life, the life of discipleship in which we humbly submit our will to God’s will. As a result, our lives start to change, start to show the fruits of the Spirit.
But this new life of fruitful discipleship is not automatic. Just as we will stumble as we climb a mountain, so also we will stumble after we go through the gate. God is at work in you, giving you both the desire and the ability to make that desire a reality. But God will not force his values, his desires upon you. He will not make you love, force you to be joyful, automatically make you at peace. Rather, you must take the next step down the path of obedience.
When you do take the next step, you start to see the fruits of the Spirit in your own life. But there are other times when you will not act like you were changed at the gate. Instead of responding in love, you will stumble and respond in anger, which might develop into bitterness. Instead of responding with peace, you will stumble and are consumed with anxiety and turmoil. Sometimes it is just a stubbed toe; other times it is a stumble that sends us headlong down the side of the mountain.
I don’t mean to be a downer. There is so much joy at the beginning of the journey, and I don’t want to water-down your excitement. But you need to know that challenges will come; they may already have started. So the question is, what will you do when those challenges come and you don’t take the next step of obedience? What will you do when you stumble and fall in your Christian walk?
In order to discuss this, I need to define a difficult term: “sin.“
At its most basic level, to sin is to “miss the mark.” Think of an archer, putting an arrow on the string, pulling back on the bow, and taking careful aim. What is he aiming at? The bulls-eye; the middle of the target. So also our lives are a series of arrows shot at the bulls-eye of the target. The target is the very character of God; he wants us to be like himself. When we miss the bulls-eye, when we miss the mark, the Bible calls this “sin.”
Take for example the tongue. God has been very clear what the bulls-eye is when it comes to our tongue. Paul tells the church in Ephesus, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (4:29). “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (5:4).
Our mouths are to be so full of what builds up the other person, of what will benefit them, of thanksgiving, that there simply is no room for gossip and slander, ridicule and taunt, rude and crude language. But despite the fact that God is all-wise and all-knowing, there are times when we think we know better. “God, that person is so mean, so hurtful, he doesn’t deserve my kindness. I’m going to tell him what a jerk he really is!” And instead of responding with words of grace (another translation of “helpful” above), we sow seeds of discontent along the path. We miss the mark, stumble, and sin.
If you live in Western culture (Western Europe and North America), and other places as well, you live in a culture that rebels against any notion of absolute truth, that there even is a bulls-eye. Today’s culture rebels against the idea that someone else can set the standards for my life. Truth is relative, or so we are told. What is true for one person is not necessarily true for another, and what was true for me this morning may not be true for me this afternoon.
But disciples are different. We have left the easy road and have followed Jesus. We have accepted his truth as the truth. We believe that God is our creator, and therefore has the right and the wisdom to determine what is true and what is false for his creation. We also believe that God is all good all the time, and this all-wise, all-loving God wants the best for his creation. So he draws the bulls-eye where he knows it belongs and then calls us to aim for dead center. Call it a bulls-eye, or rules, or guidelines, or commands; they are all the same. They are God looking out for the best for his creation.
I sometimes use the silly story of the rebellious toaster. We go to the store and buy a nice, new, shiny toaster. It is silver with places for four pieces of bread. It was made with a timer and lights so it would do its job well. We pay for the toaster, take it home, and start to plug it into a power outlet in the kitchen, a 110 volt outlet. But all of a sudden we learn that it is a talking toaster and it has a mind of its own.
“I don’t want to be plugged into that outlet. I want to be plugged into the bigger outlet by the stove.”
“But this can’t be,” you say. “That’s a 220 volt outlet. You don’t fit.”
“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do. I want to be plugged into the big black outlet.”
“No, little toaster. That will hurt you.”
“Don’t tell me what will hurt. I don’t care what you think.”
In one last desperate plea you pull out the owner’s manual and read it to the toaster. “It says here that you were design to run on 110 volts. It expressly states that you shouldn’t be plugged into the oven outlet. You weren’t designed to run on 220 volts. It will fry you.”
With the same defiance that sometimes clouds our own thinking, the little rebellious toaster demands to be plugged into the oven outlet. ZAP! The toaster is fried, worthless, charred black and with lights that will never signal that the toast is ready.
Sound ridiculous? Everybody knows that a 110 plug can’t fit into a 220 outlet, but that’s not the point. As ridiculous as it is for a toaster to insist that its maker and owner has no right to tell it what to do, to draw the bulls-eye, so also it is ridiculous for us to tell our maker and owner what we will and will not do, regardless of the owner’s manual. It’s not just ridiculous; it is sin.
Our owner’s manual is the Bible. In its pages we are told how we were made, how we were designed to function, and what we should never do lest we damage ourselves. Sometimes we listen, and happily brown one piece of toast after another. But at other times, we stumble, we think we know better than our maker, and we suffer the consequences of our sin.
Sin is missing the mark, the bulls-eye, that Jesus draws for us.