This summer I have enjoyed ignoring my garden. I love the idea of gardening but the space and the life I have prevent me from jumping in as enthusiastically as I would like. So I'm considering a number of options, most of which involve some level of giving up. Currently the crab grass in my little plot is rivaling the chard and rosemary, and some sort of mole or chipmunk has tunneled under most of the strawberries, leaving only a few struggling survivors.
I reached the section of John Owen's book, Overcoming Sin and Temptation, where he talks about distinguishing between ordinary and extraordinary sin. Although all of us are plagued by sin, not all of us are plagued by the same particular mix of sins. Different sins pose different dangers to our souls, tempting us in different degrees. My particular troubles may or may not be similar to yours, and even similar temptations may manifest themselves in completely different ways. If the goal then is to aim for the complete elimination of sin, we must be diligent to root out the particularly extraordinary sins in our own lives. These sins are so hardened, habitual, and deeply rooted that they permeate our whole person and we often live without noticing or being alarmed by them.
In other words, my unattended soul has been on the same path as my garden. Before Emmett was sick, I was frustrated with my inability to obey God, my frequent apathy, and my general stupidity, but I was confused and powerless about what I needed to do. Emmett's death seemed to dislodge something in my soul, something that had always been there unnoticed, something big and ugly that had been living unchecked in my spirit. I was trying to describe it to a friend tonight, and after fumbling for words, I finally said, "It's like a spiritual hairball."
Turns out that was the perfect analogy.
I kind of feel like my whole life right now (this blog included) is like a cat coughing up a giant hairball so big the cat might as well be dying. It turns out that these sins that lodge themselves so deeply in our conscience as to pass unnoticed are the deadliest of sins. The pride or lust or laziness that I excuse away or indulge in with secret delight or the small sinful thought habits I ignore because they have no immediate negative consequences - these are slowly but surely killing me much more effectively than whatever external sin I am currently concerned with. While I am distracted with the way I eat or how I dress or how I spend my money, the roots of evil thoughts and self-righteous attitudes and lustful cravings strengthen their hold on my heart without ever drawing my attention.
It took Emmett's death for me to be able to see how strong a hold sin still had on my heart. And now that I have this giant spiritual hairball knocking around in my soul, I'm not sure what to do. More and more I am beginning to breathe Psalm 119, "O that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees, then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands." I've been reading through that Psalm and then on a whim I went back and read Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 10-11. I highly suggest you go do that now rather than finishing this blog because it is way more instructive.
I read the words of the law in Exodus 20, and my soul was burdened by the guilt, seeing now how I have broken the commands in ways I never would have been able to see a few years ago. Then I went over in Deuteronomy and my heart just cried out in prayer as Moses warned the Israelites to love God, obey his commands, and choose life. These are the same choices I face every minute when I feel the hairball that is desperately trying to lodge itself back into and unnoticed corner of my spirit where it can fester. And I'm reminded of the passage in James (that I am still working on, ever so painfully, slowly), "each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full grown gives birth to death."
Owen points out that the goal of all sin, no matter how apparently small or innocuous it may seem, is our death. Evil will gladly be patient if patience will accomplish our destruction better than sudden, violent sin.
So I'm thankful for the hairball, thankful for the discomfort and awkwardness of my life. The greatest encouragement I have from Owen's book is that we can mortify sin. Although Owen freely acknowledges that we will never achieve complete sanctification, he describes mortification as the continual and determined weakening of sin's hold on our spirit. Too much we have stressed in the modern church that we are not perfect, that we should not be legalistic, so we rarely encourage people even to try to be better. Instead we excuse our sin with grace so that we can keep on sinning without guilt. Somewhere along the line we have forgotten that we are called to be holy, to be different, to be set apart. We are called to battle, first and foremost against our own selves. We are called to actively cough out the hairballs in our souls, no matter how ugly it gets. We are called to take up our cross and die, and strangely, I'm finding the yoke easier than I expected and the burden lighter than I expected.