Resisting the Temptation of Moral Formation (Part 1)
Course: Spiritual Formation
When I come to speak to a Christian college or seminary or just any audience, I’m often asked the question by my colleagues, professors, pastors, students, and others, “Dr. Coe, what is this spiritual formation all about? What is this new movement that’s going on? Why has it emerged? Is it a passing thing? Is it a Catholic thing? Is it a fad? Is it a radical thing?”
I’m always a little disconcerted when they say, “Is this a fad?” And I think, “Wow. I’ve just given my career to a passing fad.” But then, I also am interested when someone says, “Well, this is kind of a radical, kind of new, cutting edge thing.” I always like to tell my daughters that, because my daughters think I am so old now. I am 50 years old and every time I make a comment about music or clothes my daughters say to me, “O dad you’re so old. That is so 60s or 70s.” And I’m like, “Wow. That’s old?”
But I like the idea that maybe I am into something radical. But these are real questions. Why has spiritual formation emerged? Is it a Catholic thing? People have asked me, “Is it something that we are adding to the gospel? Why haven’t we heard that word for some time? Why is it coming up and is it new? Is that a good thing?” These are questions that I’ve thought about a lot. And as we go through the series, I’m going to answer them.
In the beginning tonight, I just want to say something about that last question: “Is it new?” My answer is, “If it is, then something is probably wrong.” If it’s totally new then I probably don’t want it, because the gospel is old. The gospel is very old. But there’s an aliveness to the gospel. There’s a freshness.
And so, as we go through these weeks together, my hope is not that you’ll say, “Oh wow, now that’s a novel idea.” I hope it would be more, “Yes, that’s so true,” or “I haven’t thought about it that way, but that’s so obvious.” I’ve been a Christian for 31 years now. But I am coming to see that I’m just entering more deeply into understanding what the faith is about. I’m just entering more deeply into experiencing what this gospel really is about. And so there are times when I understand, “Yes, that’s a new insight.” But really, it’s a new implication of an old truth.
What I’m going to do in the next five weeks will not be a systematic kind of exploration into spiritual formation. Rather, I am going to raise what have become for me some central issues, some central concerns, that have really taken me more deeply into my own life, into the heart of the gospel, into the heart of the faith, things that have now benefited some others. And that’s especially true for tonight, because tonight I want to talk about something that is so fundamental, so foundational. When my students come to the Institute for Spiritual Formation (ISF), this is where I start with them. And it’s especially going to be the case for the audience that I am speaking to tonight, and generally the audience I speak to.
If you read any of the spiritual formation literature such as those from people like Dallas Willard or Richard Foster, you’ll come to recognize that there are different audiences they are speaking to. And one of the audiences that you can pick out is the so-called “consumer Christian.” That’s a concern that I know some of the writers have.
A consumer Christian is one who comes to the Lord and that’s about it. They come to the Lord, they have their fire insurance policy and then they just stop there. It’s like them being a shopper at a mall. You’re just wandering through and seeing what goods you can accumulate and maybe what things you can entertain yourself with. And so the concern is: Does this consumer Christian have a serious commitment to the gospel? Is there a serious commitment to discipleship? And so books have been written on this element of how can we help them enter into the process of being a disciple?
And I have no doubt that there is a little bit of a consumer in all of us. That’s just part of how the Fall hit us. But that’s not the audience that I’m going to be addressing generally. That’s not the people I am around. The people that I’m around at Biola, in the seminary, at the School of Psychology and here (myself included), are what I call the dedicated neurotic. We are individuals who have a serious commitment to Christ. There is a desire to grow, a desire to serve.
1. Serious Christians have a desire to grow.
For those of us who’ve been in the faith a while, and have this serious desire to grow, there often might be a secret burden – maybe not so secret a burden – of guilt and shame. We sense that we’re not as mature as we should be, and we feel like, “Maybe God, I should be further along.” We’ve heard many sermons. When we were a younger believer, we heard a sermon and it was like, “Yes.” Pastor Dale would speak. That’s it. I’m going to go and do it. Well, now you’ve heard a sermon like that 15 times, and you realize that you’re not just going to go out and change, totally, in a moment. And you begin to wonder, “God, at times, my prayer life is dry. At times, Lord, you just feel distant. God, at times the Christian life feels like work. God, where are these rivers of living water?”
I know that very well in my own life. I came to the Lord at 18. My wife Greta actually led me to the Lord through many consternations and trials. I came to the Lord at 18. We got married at 19. Wise age, right? And that led to this 18-year journey into education and then into ministry, teaching at Biola, Talbot, and Rosemead.
And during that time, something began to happen. When I came to the Lord at 18, there was such an explosive power of love, I felt an excitement for the Lord. And as the years went on, I think it began maybe in seminary, although I don’t think there was a causal relation to seminary and my dryness. But maybe there was. At some point, something began to change. And I began to say, “God, I used to be so excited about you? God, where are those rivers of living waters you talked about?”
The Christian life began to feel like work. I remember I would memorize texts like in Galatians to “walk in the Spirit.” And I’d say, “Lord, I get the walk part. Where’s the Spirit part?” Or I’d hear John 15:5, and it would be, “I am the Vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
That text really bugged me about 15 years ago. I was coming to the end of my PhD, and I was teaching now full-time theology, and I would say, “God, you know, apart from you I can do nothing. God, I feel like I’m doing it all.” That’s how I felt.
Then, about 12 years ago, the Lord took me on a retreat, which took me into a whole new place. But I know that feeling of “God, something’s wrong with my life.”
Now, these are the students who come to the Institute for Spiritual Formation. These are not generally consumers. These are dedicated folk, but they are now carrying a burden on their back and they’re saying, “John, I want to grow. I want the rivers of living water. What can I do?” And what I tell them is that they are in the grips of a great temptation and they may not know it.
2. Serious Christians are in the grips of a great temptation.
Temptation of becoming the gentle Christian
Now, there’s all kinds of temptations. There’s one temptation that is in our hearts. If only I could read hearts. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have in the church something like an X-Ray machine, with God kind of looking into the heart. You just walk up to it and you'll see what’s all in the heart. Maybe it’s a good thing we can’t do that.
But I’ll bet there are some that come through the doors here every week where they have felt these things: “God, I should be further along. I’ve been a Christian now for 30 years. I was so excited when I was a high schooler and a college student, and now I’ve been a plumber for 20 years and, God, it’s just dry bones.
The pastor gets it. The pastor teaches passages. He seems to understand. It seems to be true in his life. I don’t get it.” And that person is in a certain temptation. That person is in the temptation of becoming what Soren Kierkegaard called the gentle Christian.
Now I am going to talk about this person later, on another night. But do you know what the gentle Christian is? The gentle Christian is the one who has realized, “I don’t get it any longer. I don’t understand how the Christian life works.” And they have resigned themselves really to a life without the living waters of Christ. And so when the pastor says, “Let’s pray,” they bow their heads, but inside they say, “I just don’t understand what’s going on.” And they become gentle. They become kind. They don’t stir the pot of their life because they don’t want to be reminded that something’s not working here. And that person in the pew is slowly dying and withering. And I’m going to be interested in that person later.
Temptation to act immorally
For another person, they might say, “You know I just can’t take it.” And they may start acting out immorally.
Temptation to perfect oneself in own power
What I am interested in – and this is particularly for the leader – is a very peculiar temptation. It is what I call the moral temptation.
And here’s what I’m going to define as the moral temptation. It’s the attempt of the hidden heart, not something we consciously want to do. It’s the attempt of the hidden heart to try to perfect oneself in the power of the self. It’s the attempt of the Christian to use spirituality, obedience, spiritual formations, service, ministry, the spiritual disciplines, being good – all these things – to relieve the burden of our spiritual failure.
So we hear a sermon and the sermon is to love your neighbor or to pray without ceasing and “Oh God, I don’t do that enough. God, I need to do that more.”
And I want to say that to try to relieve this burden that Christ can only relieve, is to enter into an incredible burden to carry through your life.
And I think that we who are in the professional ministry are going to have the deepest financial and occupational motivation to do this. Times that we’re dry. Times that we don’t know what is going on. Times when we know there’s struggles in our lives and we say, “Okay. Get up. We must do something. We must get up.” Dale must say to himself, “You must go to church.” This is a great burden to carry. And so I title this “Resisting the Temptation of Moral Formation.”
B. My concern for believers struggling in their faith
1. No amount of effort can relieve our burden, except Christ.
This is my first thesis – and again I think especially of my students, because they want so badly to come to the Institute and begin to engage in certain activities, rigorous regimens of spiritual disciplines; because they’re hoping this will finally grow them. They’re hoping this will be the answer to some of the unresolved guilt and shame they have in their own life, that they are not as mature as they are. And so I just want to say to them right up front: No amount of effort can ever relieve us of this burden of shame and guilt, except Christ.
That spiritual formation, that doing spiritual discipline, service, ministry, mission – they will not work as a self-help program to fix ourselves, to grow ourselves, or to take away the shame that we have.
And that shocks them. As I’ll be saying tonight when you do spiritual disciplines, the spiritual disciplines do not grow you. They do not transform you. What are they doing?
2. The Christian life is not fundamentally about being moral in itself.
The second thesis I say is this: that the Christian life is not fundamentally about being moral in itself. It’s not fundamentally about being a good boy or good girl. It’s not fundamentally about obedience to a set of principles written in a book right here. It’s not most deeply about character development. It’s not even most deeply interested in imitation of Christ as Christ is out there as a model to the soul. It’s not fundamentally about doing spiritual disciplines. In fact, everything I just said is what all the moralists of all the ages have said to do.
My PhD is actually in ethics, in Aristotle’s virtue ethics and I studied individuals from Plato, to Aristotle, to Kant, all the way to Freud.
All the moralists of all the ages have given us some measurement going back to the early Stoics. They said the way you change character is you take a wonderful, great person and you model that person. And so you take a great person in a community, a citizen, a hero, and you model externally those virtues and you can transform yourself.
And I want to say to my students and to you and myself, this is, in fact, what we’re saved from. We’re saved from that life. It’s a life of trying to be good, to please God, and to try to deal with our guilt and shame in our own power.
Now I’m going to be using the word moral in a certain way here, because in one sense, the Christian is going to be the most thoroughly moral of all.
He has the opportunity to really be moral, but it is going to be a change of the character to another person. I’m going to be using the word moral in a certain way here and it refers to any attempt to grow the self. It’s any attempt to try to fix yourself. It’s any attempt to try to transform yourself and deal with your guilt and shame and the power of your being good.
Remember that book? It’s an old one. It’s called, In His Steps. I don’t know if you remember it was an old kind of classic and the town began to ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” And so now it’s been made into a wristband. I mean, there is going to be something right about that. But there is something that can be quite wrong. Because it’s going to turn out in the Christian life you can’t do what Jesus did, unless you’ve learned to abide in the Vine.
You see, it’s not going to be about character imitation. That’s not what formation in the Christian life is about. It’s going to be about rather participation in a new life. Another Person who has invaded and now the task of formation is how to open up to what that Person is doing inside.
And so the Christian life as I say in one of the dots here, the bullets, is about denouncing the moral life as a way to find happiness and to please God.
And I will say this – and this will come back to us in the third night – the Lord used quite a bit of our moralism early on in the Christian life. He used your efforts, He used your works, He used what you gave Him to grow you. But there comes a time in the Christian life when it’s time to grow up and that time to grow up is usually when the Spirit is beginning to do something else. When the Spirit is beginning to show you, you know it’s not working like it used to.
Remember back here it was all working, your prayer life worked, your meditation life. Everything was kind of working. Now it’s kind of dry bones. Now you’re beginning to see other parts of yourself. That’s the time in my life I used to get really frustrated. That’s the time when I say, “God what is wrong with me?”
Now when my students go through that, I say, “This is wonderful. This is wonderful when the dryness comes. When the Christian life starts to feel like a burden, what I’d like you to say is, “Mmm. Yum. Mmm.” Because do you know what the Spirit is doing now? The Spirit is saying, “I’m going take you on a journey. I’m going to take you on a new kind of journey. Into the deep of yourself with my Spirit.” That will be a journey of a lifetime.
And so the Christian life, as we start to talk about this tonight, is a certain kind of obedience and it is going to be a certain kind of effort, but it’s going to be an effort that is opening the heart to this new relationship, about participating in the Vine. About what is it to depend upon another Person in what I’m doing. You know none of us were born this way. We were all born what I would say spiritually challenged, because we were born without the Spirit of God. Theologically we call that spiritual death. I was born with a hole in the middle of my chest where the Spirit of God should have been. That’s when Paul said we were born dead in our trespasses and sins. And so in the power of myself I’ve been leading and guiding my life and that even came into the Christian life.
At some point the Spirit now says, “John, I want to take you on a whole new journey. Thank you for all your efforts, John. It’s been good. Now I’ve got a different turn for you. And it’s going to be the ride of a life, because I want to take you to places where you’ll discover that apart from me you can do nothing. I want to take you to a new place of dependence.” So none of us are born this way. We’re all challenged.
And so I want to say here in this introduction that – I think this is the last or second to last bullet – I don’t want to be a good boy any more. I don’t want to try to fix myself. I can’t fix myself. I, now at 50, 30 years into the faith, am learning every day because he is having to come teach me every day, “John, would you give up on the project? Would you give up on the project of trying to reconstruct John Coe so you can feel okay about John Coe being a disciplined, good Christian? And would you rather open more deeply to my work? Open more deeply to what my Spirit is doing?” I don’t want to live the Christian life alone any more. I want to learn to abide in the Vine.
This is what the whole New Covenant is. I’ll want to reference the text, but we won’t look at it now – Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36. This is the New Covenant where Jeremiah and Ezekiel say God is going to give you a new covenant and this covenant is not going to be like the old, which was written on stone, and you were trying to obey it. But this new covenant is this: I’m going to put my Spirit in you and by my Spirit I am going to write Torah (the Law) in your heart. That means I’m going to begin to enter into deep places where my joys, my hopes, my loves are going to become slowly transferred into yours. And my Spirit will cause you to obey.
So theologians say this, “The agent of change and transformation in the Christian life is the Holy Spirit.” That’s what we assert, biblically and theologically. We are an instrument – a participating, cooperating instrument – in this process. And I want to open up to that more deeply of what it is to open not to being a good moral boy, but open to a new relationship that I have. But Paul the Apostle knew that we would be daily tempted by this. And I’m daily tempted.
Let’s read Galatians. Here Paul is writing to believers in Galatia. He planted this church. He’s been away. He preached Christ crucified and all that the cross meant that we will talk about later tonight. And he writes to them this, and these are believers:
“You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?” [Galatians 3:1, NASB] That is, who has bewitched you, because you came to know that the whole point of Christ’s crucifixion was in your life. “This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” [Galatians 3:2, 3, NASB]
Having begun by a relationship by faith with the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh – and the flesh is the idea of the weakness of human autonomy. The weakness of what a human can do.
And so Paul recognized that the believer is going to be tempted to start the Christian life by faith and the Spirit and yet something is going to go on to cause us to slip back into moralism. Something happened here in the short time that he had been away. The people have slipped back and Paul’s saying, “Who has bewitched you? What has taken place?”
Well, what I want to do with the rest of this time is I want to just in the briefest of terms look at five questions about this moral temptation and how to deal with it.
C. Five Questions on Moral Temptation
1. Why on earth would a Christian or anyone be tempted to be moral?
The first question is this: Why on earth would a Christian or anyone be tempted to be moral?
I mean, wait a minute John, isn’t the temptation to be immoral? Right? Anybody experienced any immoral temptations out there? Yes. Certainly there are universal temptations to immorality.
But you know there’s two things about a life of immorality that work against you. Firstly, if you give yourself to rampant immorality, because of natural law, it will probably destroy your life. There is no benefit in the long run. But secondly, giving your life to a rampant experience of immorality is a really bad way to hide from God. That’s a really bad way to hide from guilt and sin.
The answer I think is going to be simple. Morality or being good has always been from the beginning of time the most common human solution to the problem of guilt. And it’s the most seemingly effective way to deal with the problem of sin and guilt without God.
Who is the one who is going to be easier to win into the kingdom? Is it the harlot or the Pharisee? It’s the Pharisee who thinks, “I am good. I have done what is good.” It’s the moralist.
What I am interested is we see this right at the very beginning. We see it right from the beginning with Adam and Eve. That here, our first parents, they provided their answer to sin and guilt right in Genesis.
Turn to Genesis 3:7, 8. In Genesis 2, Adam and Eve were naked and were not ashamed. But now in chapter 3, they sin. They violate the command of God. They violate their relation to God. And notice the first things that happen. It says in verse 7, “And the eyes of them were opened and they knew they were naked.”
This eye-opening experience, we say historically, is when the Fall occurred. This is when Adam and Eve became corrupted. This is when Adam and Eve had a sense of something is wrong with me. This is the first experience that humans have ever had of shame. Shame is the central sin. Something is wrong with me. Something is not right. I don’t want to be looked at. I don’t want you to see me. I don’t want you to look at me, Eve. And notice the first thing they did. They sewed fig leaves and loin coverings.
The first human response to something is wrong, notice it is not, “Oh God, what happened to me?” Wouldn’t that have been cool? I don’t know what the history of redemption would have been if they had made that move, but that wasn’t their move.
Their instinct (the instinct of moralism) when you become aware of your bad, is to immediately turn inward. You immediately turn inward and say, “What do I need to do?” Now we’re going to ponder that later when we hear sermons, when you here Pastor Dale say something and Pastor Dale says, “You know, you need to pray without ceasing.” “No, no I’m not.” What’s our first response? “God. God, I need to do better.” That’s going to be the moralist. That’s the first response to shame – and this will become part of the inherited corruption that everyone gets in original sin. So here, if I could just put this up here – so here in the conscience, I become aware of bad. The first thing I do is I turn inward and then my task is to cover. They immediately sewed fig leaves.
And then the next verse is even sadder. See here is shame where they know something’s wrong with them and they are immediately covering, they are now out of relationship with God. They’ve become moralists. And verse 8 says, “They heard the sound of God walking in the garden and they hid themselves from the presence of the Lord.” Some theologians have said that’s the saddest verse in the Bible. The saddest verse. God, their lover, has come and they hid themselves. And later he says, “Why?” And they say, “For we were afraid.” Notice this is when theologians say, “Adam and Eve, when God comes, this is the first experience of guilt in the human race.” And this is something that we all are going to inherit – Paul says in Romans 5.
And what is Adam and Eve’s response to guilt? So here in their conscience, it’s pricked. They feel guilt. They feel fear. And now they hide. These two here. These become the ubiquitous – that is everywhere. It’s everywhere at the same time. It’s the ubiquitous flesh habits of the heart of the unbeliever born in original sin. We inherited Adam’s corruption. We inherited his guilt and now what do we do? We turn inward to cover, to hide.
Most unbelievers that I know are not as blatantly bad as they could be. Just go to a neighbor next door and just tell them, “By the way, did you know the apostle Paul says there is none good. No, not one. Not one seeks the good of all. Do you know you were actually conceived in sin?” I doubt if they will say, “Thank you. You know, you’re right. I really sense that.”
I live right next to Biola. I walk through a gate and on my street there is a lot of nice people who don’t know the Lord and if I told them this in a very straightforward way, they’d say, “John I’m a nice person.” Isn’t that amazing? Why on earth do humans care to be a nice person and have you to think of them as a nice person? Because if they really open to the truth, they are going to have to deal with the deepest stuff in their life: their badness, their shame, and their guilt. And who can do that?
And so morality is just one way of covering and hiding. It’s one way of having a defense against opening to a need for God and it reaps natural benefits, too. You can have a good life as a non-Christian.
My next door neighbor has a very nice life. As Dallas Willard has said, we’re all born legalists, because we are just like our original parents. And we develop a habit in our hearts that we don’t want to see ourselves as we really are. We don’t know what to do with our badness. And so humans spend so much of their time wasting their life trying to convince themselves and others that they are loveable or good enough, trying to convince themselves in their deep that everything is fine.
You know, I see this in my children. Those who are parents – you know what it’s like to discern who started it. Have you tried the game, “Who started it?” You have to be the Trinity to figure out what went on. They will go on for five minutes and I’m fine, it’s lost. You know I’m waiting for the day when one of my daughters will say, “Dad. I did it. I did it. I’m the one to blame. I loved it. I hit her first and I loved it.” I haven’t heard that, but take myself, I can speak my own problems to myself. But just let Greta to try to speak those same problems.
See, I’m saying that these are the habits of human nature apart from God. Humans apart from God are going to become habituated in a life of hiding from their bad, hiding the bad from others, and trying to cover the bad by looking good in some way. And I want to say for the Christian, these flesh habits of the heart – I didn’t become converted until 19 – my daughters were converted at five, and yet those habits were already part of them. Isn’t it amazing? When my daughter’s hands you know she’s three years old. I told her, no cookies. Her hand is in the cookie jar and all of a sudden I walk in. “Crystal, what are you doing?” “I don’t know.” “Crystal, is your hand in the cookie jar?” “I don’t know.” Wow!
Well, unfortunately, these habits of the heart come right into the Christian life. And the believer can be tempted – and now here’s my point for my students who come to the Institute -– they can be tempted to use obedience, ministry, regimens of spiritual formation, spiritual disciplines as a way to cover these deep feelings of shame. Their, “I’m not as far as I should be. I should grow more. Maybe this will help me grow. Maybe this is the regimen to help me.” So they’ll pick up a Dallas Willard book and say, “Well, this is it. God, if only I have more silence and solitude. Yes. This is the way to freedom. This is the way where I finally can live the Christian life.” Or, they’ll use these to hide from their feelings and failures. To hide from their guilt by repressing this, by trying to be good.
And thus, for well-meaning believers – you and me – prayer and obedience and the disciplines can actually be a way to hide from our sinfulness. We become aware of our sinfulness and rather than enter into it deeply and say, “God. There it is. God, this is so good. Take me on a journey.” Rather, it’s, “God, that’s bad. I need to be good.” And so I use prayer and the disciplines as a way to hide from the sinfulness to avoid the feelings of guilt, to cover the feelings of shame, to try to fix the self.
I’ll just say this, you know, prayer is not a place to be good. Prayer is not a place to try to be a good boy or good girl. Prayer is not a place to clean yourself up or to fix yourself. Prayer is a place to be honest. Prayer is a place to come out of hiding. It’s to come out of hiding, because as we’re going to see later, Christ has already covered my bad. He’s already covered that. He’s already taken away my guilt. Then doggone it come out of hiding, John.
I know this person. If you want a boring prayer life, practice being good in it. That’s just what will happen. And so this isn’t part of our conscience theology, but these are the deep motivations of the flesh that can come right into the Christian life. And God allows this. “Fine, I’ll take what you have. Like a little baby. Keep going, John, this is great.” And then at some point, he’ll want to begin to open my heart to my failure, to see myself as I really am.
And again, I think that those of us in the ministry are especially tempted here, because there is nothing worse – you know I used to preach some time ago – there is nothing worse than you come to Saturday night and you’re studying and there are dry bones and there is nothing going on and you’re just – and the text is dry as dust and you’re hoping God would give you a joke or something, anything. And then Sunday morning comes and you have to teach Sunday school or you’re preaching and you – you’re just flat. “What do you do?” You see, we have in the ministry – I have a financial motivation for this. But if I’m a plumber out there and I feel the same way on Sunday morning, I have no motivation to pump myself up. Moralism gets really tiring after a while.
2. How do you know whether you are a Christian moralist, that you are susceptible to moral temptation?
Well, here’s a second question. How do you know whether you’re a Christian moralist? How do you whether you’re susceptible to this moral temptation? I mean, clearly none of us want to be what I’ve been talking about, are we? Is it possible? Well, I want to say this. You won’t see the motivations when things are going well. You’ll see the motivations when things are breaking down.
Now here’s the first test. I’ll give you two simple tests. We can do a number of these, but here’s the first one. It’s regarding guilt. Here’s how you know whether you might be struggling with moralism. It’s whenever you’re convicted by sin, well you know that’s not very hard. Do you pray as you ought? No. Do you love your neighbor as yourself? No. Do you love your wife as Christ loved the church? No. It’s not difficult to be convicted. Almost all you have to do is open the text.
Here’s the test. Whenever you are convicted by your sin, you hear something Pastor Dale says, “That’s good. Oh yeah.” And if your first and abiding response to conscience being pricked in guilt is this, “God, I’m going to do better. God, I’m going to work on that.” You hear a sermon on prayer. “God, you know I haven’t been praying that much. Now, I know it’s good. I’ve been a Christian for 20 years, 30 years. I’m going to pray more.” If that’s your first and abiding response, then you know you’re a moralist. You know that you are perhaps in the grips of a temptation to fix yourself by effort.
This is what I would call neurotic guilt of trying to obey the Law’s commands. Galatians 3:23-25 says this – I’ll just kind of say what it is. It says: The Law was a tutor to lead us to our need for Christ. That’s what the Law is. The Law was to awaken conscience and then do you know what it was to say? “I can’t do it.” See, a healthy conscience is one that says, “I can’t.”
In Romans 7:9 it says that when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. When the commandment came, the self realized, “I can’t do it.”
Did you remember how you came to the gospel? When I converted at 19, I didn’t hear the gospel and say, “God, I think I can do this. Well, I’m going to try.” Is that how you and I came to the gospel? In that ground that we came to the gospel, without one plea, “God, I can’t do this. God, I can’t live the moral law on my own power. I can’t do this.” That’s the same ground for growth. If there is any concern that Paul has and I have for my students is that we’re saved on the ground of, “God, I need you. I’m a moral failure.” I want to declare that. John Coe: moral failure. That’s where the cross became meaningful. And it’s going to be the same in growth.
The concern is that I’m going to shift ever so subtly to a different ground and I’m saved by Christ’s work. I’m saved in my need and now I’m living a good life. That was God’s part. Now this is my part. The response of true guilt is, that at some point, at some point, hearing the sermon, reading the text, and saying, “God, I can’t do that. In my own power, I can’t.”
Now Aristotle thought he could, Immanuel Kant and all the moralists thought they could keep the moral laws. I can’t do it. If I’m preaching and teaching, I want to help usher my congregation into a place where there is – I can’t do that. It’s too high.
That’s the whole difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The Old Covenant was written on stone. No one could do it. When the commandment came we died. And so, the healthy guilt – if you want to say healthy guilt or healthy conviction – is going to say, “God, I can’t do this without you. God, I need you.” And now my plea is becoming, “God, I don’t want to do this without you anymore. I don’t want to love my neighbor without you. I don’t want to learn to love my wife as Christ loved the church just by muster and hard effort. God, I want to learn what it is to rely on you in this process. I want to open to another Person.” It’s just like how you came to the gospel without one plea.
I think of John 15:5 here: “I am the Vine and you are the branches. He who abides in me and I in him – (it’s this abiding) – he bears much fruit for apart from me you can do nothing.” Dallas Willard was commenting on this text and he said about that last part, that the Christian life is what you do when you learn that you can’t do anything. Now let’s just think about that. The Christian life is what you do when you finally learn that you cannot do anything. And for most of us that’s going to take a whole life to really believe that, because many of us have come – I’m a great one at this.
I did play football in high school and I was thinking of playing college ball. I actually was a “V” and now I’m a pear. John Coe had much fortitude. Do you know what fortitude is? It’s that thing you call upon. Right? Some don’t have fortitude. Fortitude serves you very well in life, in general. And fortitude even serves you well as a young believer.
As you go on in the faith, fortitude becomes your greatest nemesis, because fortitude is the very thing where I grab on the power of myself to try to do something and now how to go on a new journey to discover that I cannot do anything apart from the Vine.
That verse bugged me to no end 13 years ago. “What do you mean I can’t do anything? I’m doing everything. I’m doing a whole lot.” And so we think of guilt leads to this idea of condemnation, fear, and now, “I’ll do better. I’ll do better. God, I’ll do better.” Or conviction – if I’m open to that – it can lead me to a need that opens me to love. “God, I need you. God, it is your love that is a transforming power. God, I want to open to that love in this.”
Here’s the second test. Second test is this. Whenever, let’s say you’re just in life having a quiet time, just driving and where awareness of your own failures or your own sin begins to result in overwhelming and abiding feelings of frustration – you just, “Oh God, I don’t know what’s wrong in my life.” Feelings of failure or self-rejection so that you don’t want to feel these things.
Have any of you ever not wanted to feel those things? Then you don’t struggle with being a moralist. Of course, we were born in original sin this way to cover and hide. Of course, I don’t want to be exposed. Of course, I don’t want to meditate and ponder on that. Because, you know what I’m really going to believe? I’m really going to believe this, that nobody that down there in my bad is really going to love me. That is going to be the deepest belief of the sinner. That no one is going to be able to able to journey with me into the truth of what I am and really love me there, so I’m not going in there and no one else is going in there.
The moralist – and I struggle with this daily – cannot bear the awareness of being a failure. They cannot bear the awareness of the truth of their motivations, what really drives them in life. How much ego, how much pride, how much of us is in this. But in such cases, then, we’ve missed the whole point of self-awareness. We’ve missed the whole point of awareness of sin, because for the believer only, you know what awareness of bad is? It’s a door into love. It’s a door into grace. Just think back to the gospel. When you became aware, “God, I can’t do this.” You open that door. That’s where love was. There is someone who actually wants to love us right at the place of our bad. That’s what the cross was all about.
Thomas Keating says this, that “nothing is more helpful to reduce pride than the actual experience of self-knowledge.” “Nothing is more helpful to reduce pride than the actual experience of self-knowledge.” If we are discouraged by it, we have misunderstood its meaning. If we are discouraged by our failures, if I say, “ I don’t want to see the bad. I just don’t want to see that.” Then, as I’ve come to understand in my own life, I’ve misunderstood the meaning of it. Because you know what the meaning of that is? The meaning is to enter into once more how great the cross is. How great God’s love and forgiveness is.
And so, the responses that we are going to talk about in the second part - when I become aware of my sin, the first response is not, “Well, I need to do better.” The first response is, “God, I need you. I need you.” That’s the movement from moral formation to spiritual formation.
And you know what it means, too? I don’t need to hide. I don’t need to hide from myself. Why try to cover this crap? Now when we talk next time – when we talk about the hidden heart, we’ll see we can’t cover our crap. It’s leaking all over. So, if you can’t cover it by being good, then doggone it let’s open deeply to him. Let’s go on a journey and say, “God, take me.” – Kind of like the cops, you know. “Take them down.”
When students come to ISF that’s in part what I say, “This is not going to be a gentle walk with Jesus. The Lord will take you down.” This is going to be the most loving take down you’ve ever experienced, because God just at the cross he loved you in all your crap and you know what the difference was? You didn’t know all your crap. And now you have an opportunity in the Christian life to experience all your crap, in total love. That is the transformation of your crap. That’s the transformation of the heart. And we have a God who’s saying, “Come on down, John. Come on down. I have a journey of love that will blow your mind.”