More on the book I mentioned in my last post.
When I think of the word mortification, I think of putting to death, and rightly so. But when I think about that word in my life, in the context of mortifying sin, I am beginning to realize I have no idea what that means. John Owen's Overcoming Sin and Temptation is changing my life. Radically.
Just reading his words on what mortification is not is enough to make my spiritual jaw drop to the floor. Mortification is not the end of sin, as that is not possible on earth. Okay, fair enough, that even makes me feel a little better. Mortification is not the forsaking of outward sins without radical inward change. He calls this cultivating a crafty heart instead of a holy heart. umm... conviction! Mortification is not simply cultivating a quiet, sedate nature leading to the same heart problem. again... conviction! Mortification is not the occasional false victory over a bad habit, while sin lies quietly taking even more control when we let our guard down. ACK! CONVICTION!
This cycle is exactly what I have spent so much of my Christian life doing! I try to not do bad things. I figure that being quiet and obedient looks good, so I do more of that. Yet I have up until now, given little consideration to the ponderings of my own heart. Those aren't seen, so they don't feel as important. Occasional periods where I can avoid feeling shame for outward sins make me feel like a rock star. But when I fall, man do I spiral into cycles of self-loathing and shame and anger and "popish rituals" of self-loathing to make myself feel better. Then I just start the cycle again by trying harder.
I use the patterns of self-deception, thinking I have escaped sin, when it is simply lying dormant, waiting for another chance to pounce. I want the appearance of victory without too much of the process of death. Living in the delusion that I can pacify my conscience through my own effort either hardens my own sense of self-righteousness when things happen to be going well or crushes me with despair when I give in to sin.
So what do you do? Oh, and this is so delicious.
When we are overcome with sin and shame, when we cannot see our way up and out, when we are hopeless - exactly then - we are called NOT to mortification, but to Christ. We are called simply to return to the Lord, to the grace of the gospel - the good news that Christ has died for our sin and shame. We are called to thoroughly convert our soul to the love of Christ. Then, and only then, when our soul is steadfast in Christ, will the Spirit of God lead us into the process of true mortification.
And what does that process look like?
It is a continual attacking at the root of sin, a studying of how the sin works in our hearts so the we might cut it out at the base. Instead of covering it up we dig it out and examine how it starts and grows and what enticements it offers so that we might recognize its voice when it calls out to us. And gradually, ever so gradually, the violent and frequent assaults on our mind begin to weaken - not lessen, but weaken. The temptations voiced by our sinful nature never leave, and we have to be careful they do not come back with even more strength in another area.
The difference I have noticed, the hope I've gleaned from my very timid journeys into mortification, is first that there are no cycles of victory, failure, shame, and then try harder. For a long time, I wasn't sure it was possible to escape those cycles. But lately I've noticed that from my failures I tend to glean fruitful observations to equip me for the next onslaught. Like a curious scientist, I find myself examining my heart and mind with microscopic intensity. I still sin of course, but the Spirit, without the slightest bit of shame or accusation, points me back to the thoughts and paths that led me there.
This week my spirit has been so full of the weight of sin and shame that I feel crushed and broken. So I find myself going back to the beginning, to just simply dwell in Christ's love, to renew my steadfastness in his love, and to remind myself not to slip back into trying to do this myself. I find myself needing to return and rest and just dwell in His Spirit and stop striving so much. But even so, even this returning feels different. I'm not loathing myself or wanting to try harder or strategizing a new plan. I just feel like I'm hiding myself in a safe place for a little while because I'm feeling fragile and weary. I know His Spirit will draw me out again soon, but for now I sense His protection and help.
How do you get off the cycles?
I have no idea. For me it took grief - torrential, overwhelming, soul-crushing grief, and lots of it. I suppose people can get there in a less dramatic fashion, but I have no idea how. I am now convinced that true mortification is completely a work of the Spirit. All those "modern self-help, lead like Jesus, twelve steps to inner peace" books have totally missed the point. I couldn't have even seen the signposts for the path I'm on had not the Spirit opened my eyes and led me by the hand and sometimes kicked me in the rear. The only thing I could do was to throw myself on Jesus's mercy and hope he would catch me and listen for His voice. That's not the kind of advice that would sell a lot of books, but it has worked because God is faithful.