A Guide to Spiritual Formation - Lesson 4

Why We Sin When We Know So Much (pt 2)

When we sin, it's often the result of sin in our heart that has deep relational and historical roots. God wants us to pursue Him so he can transform us from the inside.

John Coe
A Guide to Spiritual Formation
Lesson 4
Watching Now
Why We Sin When We Know So Much (pt 2)

D. Things to know about a biblical understanding of the hidden heart (cont)

3. Thus, most Christians do not intend to sin; rather, they just leak.

4. This "leaking" is all about warring beliefs and desires in the heart

5. Thus, most sins are not intentions of the moment but are merely the tip of the habitual iceberg.

6. Thus, beware of "prayers of magic" or avoidance to have God take away sins.

7. Becoming a Christian can even exacerbate this problem of not knowing your heart.

8. No amount of surface correcting or behavioral change will transform the heart.

9. Self-awareness is a necessary ingredient but by itself will not transform the heart.

10. The process of transformation requires a power strong enough to penetrate into your heart to resolve whatever need at the core is driving you.

E. How does God open the heart and begin the process of change-transformation?

1. Opening the heart in honesty to the Word of God in prayer.

2. Trials and "thorns in the flesh" (2 Cor 2:7-10)

3. Opening to God's sovereign work of transformation in all circumstances.

4. Fellow believers

5. Prayer and soul work

F. God delights not in sacrifice, but a broken and contrite heart.

G. Questions and answers

  • We become moralists when we try to do good things in order to please God and relieve our guilt.
  • Parenting by guilt and shame encourages a child to do good to avoid consequences and cover their bad, rather than pursuing a relationship with God in order to let Him change their motives by transforming them from the inside.

  • What is in our heart determines how we act. There is more going on in our heart than what shows on the surface. In our hidden heart, we often have negative beliefs and desires that affect our actions.

  • When we sin, it's often the result of sin in our heart that has deep relational and historical roots. God wants us to pursue Him so he can transform us from the inside.

  • When we choose to become committed followers of Christ, we are one spirit with Him, but we still experience times when God seems distant. Sometimes this is a result of going through a developmental stage in our spiritual growth. God gives us the "bottle" of consolation. At first, we seek God in order to get pleasure. God's goal is to make our heart His home. The next stage is the love of God for love's sake.

  • The point of the dark night is to cure us of wanting God on our terms. It is an intensified movement of the indwelling spirit to fill us, rather than to just give us consoling love. When we experience dry times, God is showing us where our treasure really is and is calling us to a journey of the soul. It will often feel more psychological than spiritual.

  • God wants us to move from the love of God for love's sake to the love of God for God's sake. Our training in virtue and character helps us lead a life that is beneficial to ourselves and others. God wants us to rely on the Spirit, not just patterns of behavior we have learned. God sometimes uses the experience of dark nights to help purge us of our virtues as well as our vices.

  • In a dark night experience, we realize that even though we have good character, we are more filled with ourselves than we are with God. God may be more present to us when he seems absent than when he seems present. It is often helpful to have a mentor to walk with us through dark nights.

  • It is important to do spiritual disciplines from the heart in the Spirit. The Christian life is what you do when you realize you can do nothing. In discussing spiritual disciplines, it is helpful to emphasize the importance of how we hear the commands of God.  It is not in our power to change ourselves, but we can choose to practice spiritual regimens and rhythms that help us open up to what God wants to do. Spiritual intentions are how we respond to the Word of God.

  • How do I listen to God's voice? What do I do when I walk away from reading the Word or hearing a sermon? The prayer of recollection is to remind me of who I am in Christ so when I hear the Word, I am open to Him. It's also to help focus my thoughts by detaching from false identities and attaching to my true identity. Lectio divina brings together the commands to "be filled with the Spirit" and "let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly."

The Christian life is not fundamentally about being a moral person, obeying a set of principles, or doing spiritual disciplines. The Christian life is about opening our heart to a relationship with the living God. As we depend on the indwelling Spirit and experience abiding in Christ, we will learn an obedience that comes without the burden of guilt and shame.

Or she might have said, “You know, John, I haven’t been watching the checkbook. We have no money. It’s all gone. Or I ruined the car. We need to pray.” And while she’s praying John’s getting – have you ever had one of those prayer time when you’re? And the prayers are getting really long. “Stop it, Greta. Stop it. You pray. I’m going to take care of the problem. I’m going to get the checkbook!” 

Well, you know, because something is going on in John. John’s starting to leak. Something happened in the environment. Right? Here’s the stimulus: No money. Car problem. Well, here, John – John is trust and obey. Trust and obey. God, this is good. And then all of a sudden, Greta just says one sentence. I’m leaking. The nuclear reactor is on the move. And whether I like it or not, it’s out. There’s worry. It might even move to a little bit of anger, frustration. Isn’t it amazing? I wasn’t coming home saying, “You know, I want to worry tonight. I want to get angry with Greta. I want to get bugged. I hope there’s something at home just ready to stir the pot.” 

I’m coming home and you know what I desire? I hope everything is fine. You’ll have to ponder that. Later we’re going to ponder that. That’s not the best prayer because that’s a desire to control all the stimuli in the environment and God is the one who controls that. But this stuff’s up. And you know what’s going on in John? I know just a little bit of this. I know some of the deep beliefs in John. And I know some of the deep desires that are moving in John’s heart. And here’s one of them.

This is the part of me the way John Coe has become characterologically. Part of my deep belief structure and deep desires is this: “Doggone it, when things are really bad no one gives a rip but me and I’ve got to take life in my own hand and make it work.” That’s why Greta is praying real long.  “Stop it, Greta! I want to get to the problem.” 

Now, I have another friend that I know very well about my age. You know, he would be the very opposite of me. Similar problems with worry, but a whole different belief structure and deep desire structure that make up this sin habit. If he found out these bad things happened, you know what he might do? His response would be like this, “Oh Babe, can you take care of it?” And then he would go and watch TV, because in his deep there is another set of structures that says something like this: “Someone’s crapped on me one more time. Someone’s crapped on me. I can’t take it any more. Someone has to rescue me. I’m going to go escape.” 

I don’t know all of the sin vices of your heart, but again if I could follow you around for three days, I would discover probably about four to six of them. Four to six pockets – these places of the heart. These places that in our heart says, “Don’t go in. I don’t want to go in. I don’t like being in there. I don’t like seeing what it is. Yuck.” And so, when it comes out it’s yuck. And we confess it. And, you know, it doesn’t go away. It’s big.

And so the second – the second point was the degree to which you have a hidden heart of negative beliefs and feelings that you have not dealt with – you have not gone in there with the Spirit to really open – is the degree to which they are in control of you and me. One of the fruit of the Spirit is self-control and one of the Spirit’s fruit is that we are in control of the self. Well, right there, I’m not in control. The stuff’s just coming out and as long as the stimulus is good, we can keep the hatches buttoned up. But just put a negative stimulus: anger, envy, jealousy, worry.

3. Most Christians do not intend to sin; rather, they just leak.

So I say in the third point -- and this is crucial and we’ll take a break after this.  Thus, most Christians that I know – that I’m around do not intend to sin. Rather they just leak. That’s a powerful word for me, because I say that meaning not that they’re not responsible for it, but it’s worse than that. These are now characterological structures in the heart that all you have to do is have the certain stimulus in the environment and that stuff comes out. It has a tendency, because, you see, these habits of sin now are what we call dispositions.

You know what a disposition is? It’s a tendency to act in a certain way in certain conditions. For Paul, this is the slavery of sin. This is the emphasis of how sins of the heart control us beyond our good intentions. “I don’t want to eat the cake. I don’t want to eat the cake. I don’t want to eat the cake.” There’s a whole other habit there because there is a deep belief I know in some of them that know that when I’m lonely, sad, or depressed, I need to feel filled. And so I’ll stuff myself on cake. I know that’s there, because I’ve talked to literally thousands of women and men about this. Their deep beliefs about this cake. 

By the way, Aristotle, when he talked about gluttony, which I struggle with now, it’s not about taste. He says, “You know what it is? It’s a pathology of the throat.” He said, what a glutton wants is not just taste excitation, because no glutton chews food and spits it out usually. What the glutton wants is they want the satisfaction of being filled. It’s the food going down and what the glutton doesn’t like - and I know this - is when you get filled. Because while the filling is going on, I feel alive. And so I’ve talked with many individuals with eating problems. They want the feeling of filling themselves, not feeling empty.

4.This “leaking” is all about warring beliefs and desires in the heart.

This is going to be true of all of our sins. There is something that’s going on in the deep that we’re a slave to. And what this is all about is and this is number four, it’s about warring beliefs. It’s about warring beliefs. There’s something here on the surface. And you know something? These are usually good beliefs and these are usually good desires, but there’s something else going on here. And at times when we sin, something is so powerful going on in the environment that is stimulating this that it comes out. So I want to talk a little bit more about this and then about what is God calling us to do about this, because this is the stuff that will inhibit transformation.

When I say leak I do not mean that we’re not responsible for that. It turns out in the history of theology, in the history of philosophy, they all are going to agree about this: it doesn’t matter how the worry got there. It doesn’t matter if it stemmed from original sin, if it stemmed from the way you were parented, the way you reacted to the way you were parented. It doesn’t matter. You’re responsible because it’s yours now. I mean this is a sad thing about how responsibility works. It’s not mine, it’s not even your parents. Now they’re responsible for what, you know, how they parented, but nevertheless, whatever vices you have they are yours. And they’re coming out of you. And so the idea of responsibility was - is it depends on who has this stuff. They are responsible.

But the real rub about this leaking is this: it’s not something that just by having good intentions you will away. That’s the key. Just by intending, “I am not going to be impatient,” that will not make this vice, this sin habit of the heart  – what Paul would call the flesh, the old man, the former manner of life – It’s not going away. And so this leaking is all about warring beliefs. There’s – there’s some kind of warring going on. There’s something in the deep. In the deep, there is still a part of John Coe that says, “Dog gone it. When things go bad, I’ve got to grab it.” And those will be times where I’ll struggle with trust. Well, there are other parts of my soul, definitely on the surface, I want to trust God. That’s my intention. But there are other parts of my soul where God has taken me on a journey and – and there are actual dispositions of trust that are developing. And you know when I’ve seen that? I’ve seen that in certain trials that have happened in my life where I’ve seen when something comes up that – that could bring out worry, I’ve seen these other stuff come out too because there have been virtues that has begun to develop as well.

5. Most of our sins are not intentions of the moment.

But now number five. Most of our sins are not intentions of the moment, but they’re merely the tip of the iceberg where beneath the surface of the heart is perhaps a glacier of sin and vice that has deep historical and relational roots in our life. So here’s the heart. I’m a new creature in Christ, but it turns out there are glaciers of vices below the surface. What I only see is the tip. This is what I see – the sin as an act or an emotion or something that is coming out: the excess worry. I see that and go, “Yeah.” But below it – again, whatever it is: worry, envy. These deep beliefs. The deep desires. It may be oceanic. Some of your vices are small. Again, some of your vices are more huge.

6. Beware of “prayers of magic” or avoidance to have God take away sins.

And number six, I want us to beware of praying what one Christian psychologist I’m around: Dr. Bruce Narramore. He said, beware of praying what he calls “prayers of magic” or prayers of avoidance to have God take these things away. How many times in my life – I’ve been a Christian for 33 years – have I said, “God, take away my worry. God, take away my excess anger.” And you know something? That is an okay prayer for a young believer. That’s okay. Maybe they’re not quite ready for this journey of putting off. And just for simplicity: “God, take this stuff away.” And that’s cool. 

But there’s a time to grow up and to see this has been there for a while. The thing continues to harangue your life and now this prayer is really a prayer of magic. It’s almost a prayer of avoidance. It’s almost a prayer of this: “God, I don’t want to see this stuff. God, I don’t want to deal with it. My anger. I don’t want to look at it. Again this envy stuff. This worry. This fear. These anxieties. We all have some of these. Some of them are larger than others in our lives and these prayers of magic are really ways to avoid. Here’s really what you can begin to pray is, “God, take me on whatever journey you need to take me on for this transformation. God, open my heart deeply to what is going on in my heart.”

As Dr. Saucy at the seminary says, if you’re going to put off these old sin habits of the heart, the first question you have to ask is just simply: “God, why am I doing this? What’s going on?” And so at some point in our lives we’ll still keep praying these in frustration. “Oh God, take that away.” But then when we collect ourselves, “Spirit, I want to be open to whatever journey you have. I want you to take me on whatever journey you need to do to open up my heart to this material.”

Now here’s a question that you can ask: “Where is the sin? Where is the sin in this? Is the sin here? Or is the sin here?” Well, I think when I was a younger believer, I thought, “Well, the sin’s here.” Worry’s coming out and in fact I was taught a theory that now I think is kind of crazy, but, anyways, I was taught this at a Bible institute. The theory was: If there is no known sin in my life, I am filled with the Holy Spirit. And then when I become aware of sin, the light bulb goes out. And if I confess the sin, the light bulb comes on again. I’m going to argue next week what we’ll spend most of the time talking about: the ministry of the Spirit and what is the Spirit of God doing in the self. Now I think that’s a crazy view, an unbiblical view about the ministry of the Spirit, but this is what it did teach me about sin. As a young believer I thought this was the sin. “Okay God, I’m worrying. That’s not good.” I confess it. And then I had a little bit of a magical thought, “Well, there’s God. It’s over.” 

And now, I’m a Calvinist. As a Calvinist I believe in deep depravity or pervasive depravity. You are pervasively depraved. Even though you are a new creature, this has got deep ramifications. You know where the sin really is? It’s the sin as a habit of the heart. That’s where all the actions are going. That’s where it’s all taking place. That’s the pot of these deep beliefs that all they need is that stimulus in the environment and it comes out. And I will say this right now: No quick confession is going to put off the old man. That is magical thinking.

7. Becoming a Christian can even exacerbate this problem of not knowing your heart.

And so, number seven. Let me give you another number seven. I think what’s on your sheet would be number eight. Let me just give you another one. Becoming a Christian can even exacerbate this problem of not knowing your heart. Becoming a Christian can exacerbate, that is making it worse, the problem of not knowing your heart. Now what do I mean by this? Well, when I became a believer, the Scriptures say in Roman 6 that I was crucified with Christ. The old man was crucified and that I’m now in the Spirit. 

Here’s what happened when I was a believer. I’m not going to spend too much time. You can just ponder this. When you and I became a believer it doesn’t mean that your sin was done away. It doesn’t mean that these habits of the heart went away. It did mean this. It did mean that my connection to that habit, the power of sin – that’s the Pauline idea – the power of sin was broken. So it’s not the only thing I desire now. In fact, I have a new affection for the Holy Spirit. 

This is what I experienced at 19. There was this power breakage. Something happened in my life. It was internal. And I loved God. And you know what I did as a young believer? And it’s the obvious thing to do. It’s to focus on the good. When I became a young believer I was like, “God, I want you. I want the good.” And my focus then became: I want to do the good. I memorized Scripture. I prayed. I went to church. I loved it. I loved hearing sermons. I couldn’t go to enough sermons. I loved that.

But here’s the point. Unless there is someone in your life who has the wisdom to move you to attend, “God, I need to look at that too.” I, generally, by habit, won’t do that, because this new disposition of becoming a believer makes me look it and, “God, I want to do good. I want to do good. I want to do good. I want to grow.” And so that’s why becoming a Christian can even exacerbate the problem, because we don’t necessarily find a vision for why am I looking at my heart? What’s going on in my heart? I didn’t do that for years. And to be honest with you, when I went to Bible institute, Bible college and seminary, I wasn’t encouraged to do that. I was encouraged mostly to what I would call, do the putting on of spiritual disciplines. Put on Christ. Look at the good. Look at Christ. Do the good. Celebrate. Worship. Pray. And it was through a variety of things that began to open my heart. God, by the Spirit, kept bringing this stuff up and that took on a whole new journey.

8. No amount of surface correcting of beliefs or behavioral change will transform the heart.

The eighth point – And this would be, I think, your number seven in there. That no amount of surface correction of beliefs or behavioral change is going to transform the heart. No amount of just taking in good beliefs or engaging in behavioral change – trying to be patient –- will change the heart. That’s what Aristotle thinks. That’s what the pagans think. If I can just now get good, correct beliefs about the reality of things, and if I can change my behavior, I’ll change my habits of the heart. That is what we would call a necessary condition. It’s something that going to have to happen, but it’s not going to be sufficient. It’s not going to be sufficient. That’s magical thinking.  

Now, I want someone to start there. When I came to the Lord I was discipled by someone who was very interested in meditation on the Word. So in the first two years of my Christian life I memorized probably seven books of the Bible. I love memorizing Scripture. I love taking that in. And yet some of these habits of the heart continued to abide, continued to grow and fester.

9. Self-awareness is a necessary ingredient, but by itself will not transform the heart.

The ninth point, or whatever point this is now. It’s getting kind of long. The ninth one is this. Self-awareness is also a necessary ingredient to opening the heart, but by itself it will not transform. Self-awareness. Opening the heart. Seeing yourself. That’s a necessary ingredient. Just like truth is a necessary ingredient. Behavioral change will be necessary. It won’t be sufficient.

10. The process of transformation requires a power strong enough to penetrate into your heart to resolve whatever need at the core is driving you.

What is going to take place for the transformation of the heart? This is number 10. This is the Christian view that the process of transformation is going to require a power strong enough to penetrate into your heart to resolve whatever need at the core is driving you. See, it’s going to work out like this. You can bank on it. This is an example of what we call spiritual theology. And we’ll talk about that in the next weeks. You can bank on it that behind all of this is some kind of perceived need. It’s some kind of perceived need that at the bottom all of our sin at the very bottom that is what I am attached to. I’m really attached to having life in my terms in some way. 

When I worry, what’s really driving me is right at that moment when Greta is telling me about that problem. In the deep the perceived needs, “Doggone it. I’m going to have life on my terms. I do not want hassles. I do not want this stuff. And doggone it, I’m going to have to fix it.” And there’s the war. “God, am I going to trust you?” “Yeah, I’ll trust you while I’m fixing this.” 

And something is going to happen. Something has got to happen. A power and this is going to be – this is the power of the Holy Spirit in love and truth. That is the main power of transformation. Remember we believe in a relational Christianity. Taking in the truth is not going to be sufficient. Truth itself will not unlodge and not resolve these deep things driving you. Somebody, the Spirit, is going to have to take the truth and penetrate into our hearts deep enough where it will resolve that need. And you know what it’s going to be? It’s going to be love and truth because only love and truth will finally resolve you and I to let go. To open our hands and say, “God, I don’t need. I don’t need that. I need You. God, I need You.” It’s going to have to be a power strong enough to do that.

E. How Does God Open the Heart and Begin the Process of Change-transformation?

And so now, I want to move to E. What is this process of change? I’m going to do this rather quickly just to present some things, because I want some questions at the end. So I’m going to try to finish by twenty after. And then, maybe later, in the next sessions when I talk about spiritual disciplines, we’ll talk about this a little bit more in depth, but I want to bump start this now.

In general, the need is going to be this. Someone or something is going to have to go into the heart. Something has got to go into the heart to begin to bring this stuff out into the open and then to penetrate it so deeply with love and truth to resolve what really is driving you in life, to resolve what really is driving your anger, your envy, your jealousy. This is the Christian life. The power of transformative change is the Spirit’s love and truth. That is the power. Aristotle would just say it’s truth and behavioral change. That’s the difference between us and Aristotle.

So what I want to look at just in the briefest of terms. I just want to teach what I would call five spiritual disciplines of putting off. These would be five disciplines that you can engage in. This is up to you. This is something you can do. Now you can’t transform yourself. You got to give up on that project. You cannot love yourself so powerfully to resolve the needs. In fact, it’s your disordered self-love and my disordered self-love that gets into the problem here. 

So these are five kinds of spiritual disciplines, but they are unique disciplines. They’re disciplines for putting off the old man. They’re disciplines for opening up the heart. And these will have a familiarity to all of us. These shouldn’t even be something new. It’s what God has been doing, but we’ll just make it explicit.

1. Opening the heart in honesty to the Word of God in prayer.

The first one is this. It’s opening the heart in honesty to the Word of God in prayer. It’s opening the heart in honesty to the Word of God in prayer. You all know this text, but let’s just read it. Hebrews 4, about the Word of God. Hebrews 4:12:

“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of [both] joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” [NASB] 

The Word of God can go in there and bring up what’s really there. But this is in the context not of just what’s in the Word, but it’s it in the context of God and prayer. Notice verse 13. This is the context of the Word. “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are opened and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” [NASB] 

What is the Word of God to do? It’s to slice open the heart by the Spirit of God, by the God who sees all, by the God who wants to penetrate and open this. But again this is also in the context of prayer so here we have the Word but it’s not just the Word. It’s God himself who penetrates into our hearts, but this is in the context of prayer. Since then, I mean, wow. This is kind of heavy. The Word of God is supposed to slice and dice and open the heart with the person of God. 

“And since then we had a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confessions. We have this high priest for we don’t have a high priest who can’t sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted by all things, yet without sin. So, let us, therefore, draw near with confidence to the throne of grace….” [Hebrews 4:14-16]

Here’s the first discipline. The discipline is to open your heart in prayer with the Word of God. This is allowing now the Lord to begin to do surgery with the Word. And so what I want to do is, if I become aware of worry I want to take that and say, “God, use your word to take me on a journey.” And so I mean, with worry, I might just meditate on Philippians 4: [6-7] “Be anxious for nothing, [right?] But in everything with prayer, supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God and the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, let it guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.” 

But I’m not going to say that Word. I’m not going to say the Scriptures, thinking just by saying the Scriptures is going to transform this stuff. And you know what I’m not going to do, especially, is that I am not going to meditate on the Word as a mantra to try to convince myself that I’m not worrying anymore. I’m not going to use the Word to try to fix me. You know what I’m going to use the Word to let it do? Whatever the Spirit wants to do. And so I’m going to come to the Lord and maybe I’m in the middle of worry, “God, I want to open this text to you and I want to say this,” so I say this text.

And now here’s the meta virtue of all the spiritual disciplines: it’s honesty. After I read the Word, I say, “God, show me what’s in my soul. Show me what’s in my soul.” I want the Word now by the Spirit to take a journey into this heart to begin to expose. And you know what he might do? This is up to him. He might, if he wishes, He might give consolation to this time. I might be in a time of great worry. I come to the Lord, and during that time in the Spirit, because of what His plan is, “You know John, I just want to minister to your heart here. I want to console you in love.” Have you ever had those times when you come to the Lord and all of a sudden you’re at peace. That’s so cool. And when that takes place, and this is the Beatles song, let it be. Let it be. Let it be.

Now you might ask the question to the Lord, “This is so good. God, this is good. But, you know Lord, I would like to know more, why was I worried?” But again if the Lord has given you consolation, that’s great. But you know what sometimes happens when you’re in great worry? If the Lord wanted to console you, he could do it. But the Lord may have another plan for you, because he may be saying, “You know, “John, you’ve grown up enough. But I want to take you on another journey. Thank you for reading that text. And now what I want to do is I actually want you to become aware of all this or maybe just that.” 

And so you find that after you’ve read the text, you’re still worrying. I tell you one thing you don’t do. Do not tell yourself, “Stop worrying, John.” That’s what Aristotle would do. Stop worrying. Focus on something else. You know what I want to say to that? Blah. No. Begin to think this, “Oh God, this is good. God, this is so good. Take me on a journey. Penetrate my heart so deep. God, I don’t want to run away from this. No condemnation. You accept me. Okay, cool Lord.” You’ve decided if he wanted to console you, he could. God can do all things logically possible. God can console you every moment of your life if he wanted to. And right now He’s saying, “John, I want you to enter into a journey. I want you with me. I want us to begin to explore this stuff. And the Word now can do that with Him. I want to begin, “God, what really is going on in my soul? What is really driving his?” Now I have a meaningful prayer opportunity. Don’t use the Word as a mantra to convince you don’t have a problem. Let the Word just open you honestly and go on any journey He wants.

2. Trials and “thorns in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7-10)

A second thing. Again, there is much to say about that, but a second thing. A second way that he uses to open the heart. This is all his ways is what I would say is trials and thorns in the flesh. Trials and thorns in the flesh.

Remember Paul? Paul was bugged by something. We don’t know what it was. You know, some physical maladies. Something going on externally. We don’t know, but he was bothered by it. He doesn’t like it and asked God to take it away. And you all know what God said, “My grace is sufficient for you.” There was something going on in Paul. Something in the environment and something’s coming out. “I don’t like that. I don’t want it.” And God says, “I know you don’t. I know you don’t. But that’s fine. I want it.” So Paul let it be. Let it be. Let it be. Let it be. And now what is Paul going to discover? You see, Paul initially said why did he get this thorn in the flesh? Because of grandiosity. Because of the surpassing revelations that he was having. He was tempted to exalt himself. Something was going on in Paul’s heart and Paul says, “I don’t want this thing. I don’t want it.” And God’s saying, “I want it. Because you know what I want to do here? As you see this, I want you to enter into this. I want you to enter into your weakness.”

Remember that text? My grace is sufficient for you. Why? My power is perfected in your weakness. Now, none of us really believe that at the core. We believe power is perfected in power. Power is perfected when I’m on top of things. And Paul is discovering this secret. There’s about three secrets that Paul tells us in the Bible. This is one of them. This is one of the secrets he’s learned, that power is perfected in weakness. So Paul says, “I’m going to gladly boast in all this stuff. I’ll gladly boast about all this stuff that’s happening in my life because what I’m discovering is this: when I am weak, then I am strong.”

You know what trials do? Trials are the most profound experiences in our life. Because you know what they do? They crack open the heart and they bring out all the stuff. When I get into a trial, I hate trials – Anybody like trials here? No. I hate them. I want a nice life. In fact, I spend a lot of doggone energy fighting the Lord trying to control my life so I don’t have trials. That really is not well-spent energy, but I do. I don’t want these things because when they happen - when the negative things happen there’s stuff in me that comes out. Expectations, needs, things that I want, things I don’t want. I don’t want life this way. This all boils down to a very fundamental need and that is: I want life on my terms. That is just a very fundamental thing.

One theologian calls it God playing. I want life on my terms and God just kind of want to turn and say, “John, I want you on my terms.” But nevertheless there are these deep, deep issues and trials, like nothing else, whether I can accept it or not I, stuff’s out and now I’ve got to deal with it. And you know what my first tendency in trials are? First is to pray quickly and to move. And then when the moving does not work I go back to prayer. “Oh God, help my moving.” And Greta is always there, you know, “John, why don’t you just give up?” Huh? No. No. I’ve got to keep moving. And trials do that. “Oh, God. Oh, God.” Some trials are great, and I say that with fear and trembling. Some trials are so overwhelming. And God knows exactly, exactly what he’s doing.

Let me just say in trials you know what my task really is: Open to God. “God, what are you doing? God, what are you doing? God, oh if only I had the heart. Oh God, this is cool. What are you doing? What’s going on? Take me on a journey. Open my heart. Show me whatever is in my heart that You want to do here.”

3. Opening to God’s work in all circumstances.

Now the third one. This is opening to God’s work in all circumstances. Opening to God’s work in all circumstances. Turn for a moment to Romans 8:26. This is a chapter about the ministry of the Spirit. How we are now in the realm of the Spirit and there’s power there, but it’s also a recognition that there is still suffering and chaos in the Fall. Right? Creation is still groaning. It’s waiting for the fullness of redemption and Paul tells us in verse 23 that we ourselves are groaning. We don’t have the fullness yet. And so, even though we’re in the Spirit, we still have all this weakness within us. 

And then he says in verse 26 – this is fascinating – and in the same way, the Spirit also helps us in our weaknesses. “In the same way, the Spirit helps our weaknesses for we do not know how to pray as we should.” Well, why is it that we don’t know how to pray as we should? Because we don’t know our weaknesses. The Spirit knows exactly our weaknesses. He knows exactly how to pray. “In the same way, the Spirit helps in these weaknesses for we don’t know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit does and He intercedes with us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is because he intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” [Romans 7:26-27]

Now, what’s going on here? Here’s the story. Back to our heart. So here I am again this new creature. I’ve got these glaciers within, of vices. I don’t know how to pray for myself, because I don’t know myself. I don’t know what I should pray for. Have you ever prayed for yourself and wondered, “God, is that what I should pray for?” To the degree that we don’t know the heart is the degree to which we won’t know how to pray. But you know what? Here’s the great thing. The Spirit. The Spirit knows it all. The Spirit lives in it. He knows the core of all your vices. And he still loves us. He still accepts us. There’s no condemnation. This is the incredible thing for us.

And here’s the great thing that is happening. This is what we call the intercessory ministry of the Holy Spirit. All last night while you were sleeping and all today while you were working and even right now while you’re listening or sleeping – one of the two – the Spirit is praying for you. That has become a great solace. The Spirit is constantly praying particularly for my vices, my weaknesses, with groanings too deep for words. That is, you can’t hear that ministry. This is not the ministry of tongues. This is the ministry of the Spirit constantly praying for you in the deep. And it says how does the Father know? Now, the Father lives in here too, but I’m just going to draw it up here. Here’s God the Father. How does God the Father know what’s going on? Well, he knows what’s going on, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. The Spirit is constantly praying to the Father. Last night the Spirit was constantly praying for my life.

This is the context for Romans 8:28: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good for those who love God and those who are called according to his purpose. For whom he foreknew he predestined to become conformed into the image of His Son that He might be a firstborn among many brethren.” [Romans 8:28-29] What’s going on here? The Father and the Spirit have one goal for your life. Now you and I have many goals. Right? I’m about to write a book. Well, I hope that book will do well. I have no idea if that’s the Father’s goal, but here is his goal: He wants to perfect me as he says here, he wants to conform me into the image of his Son. That is the goal. That is the prayer ministry between the Spirit and the Father for your souls is: I want to conform this stuff to the image of the Son.

And take a guess what God is doing to conform me? God is working all things – these are all the circumstances of your life – God is working together all things, all things work together for good to those who love God. The context of Romans 8:28 is this prayer ministry of the Spirit. He knows your weaknesses. He’s praying for it. He wants to transform it. And now God is laying out in his sovereignty a whole set of circumstances for that transformation. That’s why everything’s going on in your life. Now some of these things are positive. Good friends. Children. My wife. Things that have broadened my life that are good. You know what these things do? Here are the good ones here. These are ones that encourage. And they encourage virtues. They encourage me to even begin to maybe look at myself. 

But you know the negative ones?  Romans 8:28 it’s all things. In the Greek panta – it’s all things. All things work together for good. Cause you know what the negative things do? They bring out the stuff. Do any of you have a person at your work? Where, you know, you’re doing fine at work and all of a sudden that person walks by and ugh. Anybody has someone that bugs them? You know something? That’s a gift. That’s a gift. Now gifts come in different sizes and shapes. I had an aunt Ethel who gave me gifts when I was ten and I didn’t know what they were. I always had to ask my mom, “What is this?” When I became 20 I came to really appreciate those gifts. They were weird. All a gift really means is that somebody is giving you something. 

See this positive thing? That’s a gift. See the negative thing? That’s a gift. And here’s what God is doing. There’s no accident that person walks by you at work and when you see them you’re …. Or it’s not by accident that your kids are going through what they are going through right now. Or your wife says something to you. I don’t know what’s going on in your life. There’s nothing accidental. 

All of these are gifts. And you know what the negative ones do? They bring out the stuff. We start leaking. The crap begins to come out. Here are your options. When you see this stuff coming out. You see that person walking by and you are … or you see somebody that you’re a little jealous of and you .… Well, one thing is you can just repress it. Stuff it back in. Hide from it. It’s not going anywhere. God is giving you a gift and this stuff’s coming out.

Another thing you can do is you could confess it quickly. You know confessing quickly doesn’t do much at some point in our Christian life. There’s a time to grow up about confession. I think about my wife. I remember one night I came home from work. It was a Friday. This was before we had children. This was years ago. I just wanted a night off to take a break. And I remember – we were going to watch a video and it was right after dinner. And I said something that bugged her and I was like, “Okay, I need to apologize. Well, Great, I’m sorry.” That didn’t go. “Okay. Greta, I’m sorry. Will you forgive me? You know.” That didn’t go. And then finally I said, “You know, Greta, I asked you to forgive me. Could you just forgive me and we get on with the night?” 

Whoa. Let me just say guys that is not the way to go, if you want to get on with the night. And then she said to me, “You know, John, you’re like a little boy who wants to get off the hook of guilt so you can go run and watch your video.” And I said, “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Game on. Can we do it?” And then she said, “You know, John, you don’t want to enter my grieving heart do you?” No. No. 

You know Ephesians 4:30 says we grieve the Spirit of God. But there’s no condemnation. We are totally accepted. Quick confessions now. For young believers they’re fine. You’re not ready to plunge in. When you get older you’ve got to see what’s going on.

You know what this is? When my stuff is out, because there’s no condemnation. Stuff is coming out of my life. God is sovereign. He’s doing all this work. You know what it is for me now? Here’s an opportunity for fellowship. It’s an opportunity to say, “God, open my heart.” 

4. Fellow Believers

I’m going to skip the next two. I’ll come back to those at another time. But the last one has to do with what God is trying to do in the heart and it’s with Psalm 139. I quoted it there.

This is what the Spirit of God wants to do. Now - Now there is in number four – if we had time we’d talk about how others can be involved in this process and that’s real good, but we’ll come back. 

5. Prayer and Soul Work

But, just what is God doing in soul work? Here’s what he’s doing. This is Psalm 139. Remember David says God you know me. You know my sitting. You know my rising. God, you know absolutely everything about me. And then he ends it by saying, “God, search me and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts.” God, search my heart. Try me. Know my anxious thoughts. See if there is a hurtful way and lead in the everlasting way. “God, I want to invite you.”

You know what the ancient spiritual writers did? They called this intentional soul work. This is soul work. Don’t wait for the trials. Don’t wait for the trials to crack open the heart. Intentionally welcome God into the process. Let me just and I’m going to close with this, let me just give you a suggestion. Next week there’s some prayer projects that I have in the back that you can do. But here’s what you can start doing. Just try this for a week. Take whatever quiet time you have – if it’s five minutes, 20 minutes. I don’t know what you got. Doesn’t matter. Whatever you’ve got, just, “God, here I am.” Split it in half this week. Do whatever you’ve been doing for the first half.  But the second half – five minutes, 10 minutes, half hour. I don’t know what you have. Say this, “God, search my heart. I’ve got 15 minutes. Search my heart.”

Now obviously, you could do this for three weeks. And I did that. I did a retreat for three weeks where this was the general portion of the retreat. And during that retreat God took me into places of hell in my soul. Places of seeing so much falseness with what I’ve done with my education, my teaching, my wife. Using literally everything and during that time my heart was so opened to my falseness. I remember just weeping and weeping and just screaming at myself, what an SOB I’d become. That’s a son of Beelzebub. 

And in that place I experienced the love of the Spirit that I’ve never known in my life. I experienced the deep presence of a Person loving me right in the crap. And I discovered a taste of Paul’s truth, that power is perfected in weakness. I discovered that God loves the actual John Coe and not the false John Coe. Not the John Coe of many machinations.

Even with 20 minutes you can just bump start the journey. This can become just a slow little habit of the heart, “God, I just want to be open to you. God, for the next 20 minutes let’s talk about worry. God, just take me on a little journey. What’s going on with worry? And God, through the rest of the day as you bring up circumstances, God, I just want to be open to You.” All your moments can be moments of having a meaningful conversation. Now, I didn’t have many kinds of these conversations with my dad until I became a believer and something began in our life. But I have a Father in heaven who is saying, “John, come on down. Come on down, John. I want to take you down. I’ve got so much to teach you. I have so much to teach you.”

F. The Result: God delights not in sacrifice, but a broken and contrite heart.

You know what the result is? And this is F. I’m sorry about the time. God delights not in sacrifice, but a broken and contrite heart. In Joel he says return to me with all your heart. Rend your heart and not your garments. Rend the heart. You know, what a beautiful thing it is to have a community of broken hearts, to have a community of wounded healers. To have a community of people who minister out of weakness. I don’t think there is anything more inviting to the world than a broken heart.

Remember David? God said in 1 Kings 11 that David had a whole heart for God. Isn’t that incredible? An adulterer and a murderer. Do you know what it means to have a whole heart for God? It’s to have a heart that can be broken. Not a heart that’s perfect. What a beautiful thing a community can be.

I want to pray, and then I want to just – we have five minutes for questions. I’m really sorry about that. But we’ll come back.

Our Lord, we just come to you as we are. We want to experience the truth of ourselves with you. Your love and your truth is the only power that can ever dislodge the sins of the heart. But God I thank you that you pray for me, everyone here, all the time. You know us. You love us. We bless you. So here we are. We bless you. In the name of our Lord, Amen.

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