So the picture that keeps coming to my mind is of a little old archaeologist patiently dusting away sand from the toes of a massive skelton, the rest of which has already been unearthed. The whole skeleton sits there but is patiently ignored while the archeologist simply and thoroughly digs out the last little bits. Or maybe it's not a skeleton after all, maybe he's patiently brushing dirt away from the roots of a giant plant that are stretching deep into the ground, and he's a botanist instead of an archaeologist. Either way, the thing is huge and this little man is getting OCD about unearthing every last extremity.
Another image that keeps coming to mind as I read Owen is of Mad Eye Moody from Harry Potter saying, "constant vigilance." I apologize if you're sick of me telling you about John Owen's book Overcoming Sin and Temptation, but I really can't help telling you about something that is so radically changing my heart. I'm beginning to realize how blind I am, though I suspect the word "we" instead of I would be entirely appropriate.
Because let's face it. We can rationalize anything. Owen points out that we are often conscious of the fruit of sin, but not the root of temptation that births the sin. The particularly adept will cut off all visible fruits of sin while letting the temptations of pride and honor and esteem and learning create a chokehold on the heart. Particularly convicting is how Owen describes when the heart begins to secretly cherish and feed temptation. While the person may be able to avoid outwardly sinning, the lust is still killing the soul. Such people keep up the duties of religion to earn honor or esteem despite having lost the substance of religion, namely the joy and power and vitality that come from true worship, prayer, and communion with God.
Owen warns against the false security of participation, arguing that when our hearts are not satisfied in the duties of worship, that is the first sign that have entered into temptation. And though we may not be sensible about the nature of our temptation, It will lead to sin and death if left unchecked. Our various lusts for pleasure, power, honor, love, etc plunge our soul into violent, tumultuous upheavals where outward temptations have a peculiar attraction they might not otherwise have. Sins we would have never thought possible become normal, rational behavior.
I couldn't think of a better example than Saul. Lately I've been reading through 1 Samuel, and I'm struck over and over by the blindness of Saul. There is a funny temptation in Bible study (and I suspect in life as well) to look at another person's sin and chuckle about how blind they are from our exalted position of superiority. Jesus accused the pharisees of doing just this by trying to point out the speck of sand in another person's eye without removing the plank in their own eyes. But it hit me while reading this time that I am just like Saul. The theme of the book of Judges (which happens right before Saul becomes king) was that Israel had no king so everyone did what was right in his own eyes. And what, might you ask, would that be? Well, it includes rape, murder, stealing, idolatry, etc.
So coming out of that kind of culture, Saul was pretty amazing. He brought order and stability and law back to Israel. If I weren't privy to Samuel's account, I probably would have thought he was a pretty awesome guy. Outwardly, he was not only doing the right things, he was doing them more devoutly than anyone else. But there are these little things, like offering the sacrifice himself because Samuel is late. I mean, if I were with Saul, that would look like Samuel's fault, not Saul's. Or not completely destroying all the livestock of that little town, as that crazy nut Samuel told him to do. Samuel must clearly be a stick-in-the-mud or crazy-cult-extremist to come up with such an obviously bad idea and waste perfectly good resources. Saul would have definitely done the right things in my eyes if I had been there. And chances are, we'd all be standing up applauding him right now, possibly exactly like so many people are applauding their favorite political figure right now because he seems more right in our eyes than the other guy.
And yet, what seems right in our eyes is very often self-deception. That's not a political statement, by the way, I'm back to the contents of your heart and mine. How I'd prefer to judge other people rather than look at my own heart! how many times a day do I make a perfectly reasonable judgement without ever considering what the Spirit is pressing on my heart? I'm afraid I'd be ashamed to keep count.
God, like the little old man in my head, is patiently unearthing the roots of the sin that has wrapped its little tentacles of temptation around my soul. He's not just aiming at outward conformity, he's going for the whole thing this time. That new heart he talks about in Ezekiel? Sounds nice until he actually sets to work at taking out the old one in order to make room for the new one. And while I'm jumping up and down asking him to get rid of the giant flower of sin that is so huge and obvious, he just shakes his head and keeps digging at the roots. Because it turns out that it isn't the flower that strangles our souls, it's the roots no one can see. And those roots can live without the flower. We can be so good at pruning the flowers and ignoring the roots that we, like the pharisees, are just dead men in whitewashed tombs.
We can diet and exercise and vote a certain way and go to church and never cuss and never get mad and live in the right school district and buy just enough stuff to look good but not so much to look too good and make sure our kids go to college and sponsor a hungry child in Guatemala while ignoring the ones across town, and do all of these things and still be dead. But people will thump us on the back and tell us how awesome we are and set us up as an example to follow.
So I'm a little bit thankful today that I tend to say the wrong thing, that I get a little moody now and then, that I have trouble cleaning my house and doing the lawn work, that I buy myself something pretty every now and then because I'm shallow and it makes me happy. Because all of these flaws make me realize how much I need God, how much this life is about him changing me and not me changing myself. So dig away little botanist, because those roots go deep! Meanwhile, I'm going to pray that when God finally rips out those roots, that the I can scream hallelujahs instead of cuss words. Cause it's going to hurt.