There are few of us who wouldn't like to improve the consistency of our obedience. We make what we believe is an honest effort to please God, but we find ourselves stumbling and failing to follow our conscience. We can identify with the pain Paul described in Romans 7:15-24: "For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. . . . For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. . . . For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" It is this wretchedness, of course, that originally brought us to the foot of the cross seeking to be saved. Yet having been forgiven of our past sins, we still find ourselves frustrated by failures in our obedience.
Sin is an ongoing reality for us, even as Christians. John wrote, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). This means that we'll continue to struggle with sin as long as we live in this world. Try as we may (and as we must), we can't be perfect. The fact that we're fallible, however, doesn't mean that we're helpless. There is something we can do, and it is simply this: we can improve! We can learn to be more consistent in our obedience. And we simply must not allow ourselves to settle for anything less.
It seems to me that this is a subject of immense importance. Learning how to win crucial victories over sin and actually grow in the consistency of our obedience is, I believe, one of the major challenges before the Lord's people of our day. I plan to devote the rest of my life to "picking the lock" of this subject, primarily for my own spiritual need, but also for the benefit of anyone else who will listen to what a fellow struggler has been able to figure out.
For what it's worth, the following is the gist of a five-lesson series of sermons I am trying to prepare in order to sum up what I've learned so far, particularly over the past five or six years. These principles mean more to me at the personal level than anything I've ever tried to learn or teach. I'm convinced that if you'll consider them thoughtfully, you'll see the possibility of some things that could make a real difference in your life as well.
1. Clarifying Our Character. We won't make much progress improving our conduct until we see that our conduct is produced by our character. If we frequently find ourselves acting in ways that contradict what we say are our principles, at some point we have to ask whether these really and truly are our principles! We may need to clarify who it is that we really intend to be, and strengthen our commitment to those things that we say are our principles.
2. Keeping Our Vision Clear. Even when we're truly and deeply committed to the principles of righteousness, the devil is ingenious in finding ways to distract us and fool us into momentarily forgetting how important certain things are to us. We must learn how, in the hard moments, to remember who we are. We must develop the ability to stop and think. The key to Jesus' own obedience was His ability to keep clearly focused on who He really was and where He was going. We must look "unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2).
3. Training the Flesh. If we find that our flesh is too weak to reliably carry our spirit's instructions, it needs to be strengthened. If it's been undisciplined for a long time, the flesh is used to doing whatever it wants to do and it will resist being brought into submission to a higher authority. But given time and incremental training, the flesh can be brought into subjection. Paul said, "But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection" (1 Corinthians 9:27). The flesh doesn't have to be the hindrance we've let it be in the past. There are specific things we can do to strengthen it. It can, in fact, be trained to be one of our greatest spiritual assets. We can learn to use our bodies rightfully, as instruments through which God is glorified (1 Cor. 6:20).
4. The Sources of Spiritual Strength. In moments of specific need, we can't have available to us the same spiritual strength as the saints of old if we dont live as they lived in their overall manner of life. There are certain activities that are the means by which spiritual strength and wisdom are acquired, and we must build these "disciplines" into our daily lives. Such things as prayer, study of the Scriptures, worship, meditation, and fellowship with God's people may seem commonplace, but they are nothing less than the activities through which we become strong in our relationship with God. It's time that we learned how to look practically at these disciplines as the sources of spiritual growth and strength.
5. Moment-by-Moment Obedience. Everything about life and godliness comes down to the peaceful management of the moments that come and go. No one is strong or wise enough to handle at once everything that life can throw at us, and we only discourage ourselves by trying to take a bigger approach to obedience than is possible. The truth is, life comes to us in moments, one at a time, and these individual moments are always manageable. There are many things we can learn to help us manage them more successfully in our obedience to God. It is possible for us to live the same kind of life as Enoch, who "before he was taken . . . had this testimony, that he pleased God" (Hebrews 12:5).
Obedience to God can never be completely "automatic." There is no way to eliminate the necessity of choosing obedience in each moment that comes to us. Yes, there are things we can learn that will help us. And yes, we can build up a certain momentum that will tend to keep us moving in the right direction. But granting all these things, it still must be said that individual acts of godliness are choices that we must make.
We won't always make the right choices, obviously. We can't be perfect, but we can improve. (1) We can improve our character, clarifying what our principles really are and making a more powerful commitment to them. (2) We can keep our vision more clear and do a better job of seeing through the devil's distractions. (3) We can, by patient practice, train our flesh to be stronger, so that it is more of an ally and less of an enemy. (4) We can practice more of the spiritual disciplines and live an overall style of life that is conducive to spiritual strength. (5) We can improve in our management of the moments and become more consistent in our choices.
In short, we can learn to more "pure in heart" (Mt. 5:8). We can live before our God with a more wholehearted passion for Him and His will. We can be "those who diligently seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6). And "forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead," we can be those who "press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:13,14).
Gary Henry - Revised 04/16/01
"Brass Tacks" article in Focus Magazine (May 01)