On Self Assessment

Samuel Rutherford (Scottish Pastor in the 1600’s) has comforted me in my distress and confronted me about my sin through his writings for years. He accomplished both with skillful use of the gospel of Christ.  Rutherford is the most poetic spiritual surgeon I have read.  God uses him in astounding ways to cut and to heal the soul.  He can speak so passionately about Christ Jesus that words can almost feel embarrassing.  He can be so confronting that some would claim him to be harsh.  By his own admission to a close friend he said, “I am made of extremes.”[1]  Rutherford’s self description is one of his most comforting statements to me.  I too am a man of extremes.  I have always felt this to be a weakness, especially for pastoral ministry.  Huge emotional ups and downs, depressions, always fighting for self control all seemed out of place for a pastor.  There were many times I felt second class as a pastor.  What I mean is, I felt my temperament a bit feeble and lacking compared to the men I looked up to.  There were even sometimes I felt I should not be a pastor; maybe you have felt that way too – but who would you ever admit that to? So, Rutherford has proved to be a true friend and helper.  Below is some of his counsel.  I hope you find it helpful.

On Self Awareness

Let me give you the full quote in which Rutherford claimed, “I am a man of extremes.”  In a letter to his friend and colleague, David Dickson, he said, “I fear that you have never known me well. If you saw my inner side, it is possible that you would pity me, but you would hardly give me either love or respect.  Men mistake me the whole length of the heavens.  My sins prevail over me, and the terrors of their guiltiness. I am put often to ask if Christ and I did ever shake hands together in earnest.”[2] I found such frankness frightening and refreshing.  Here was a man who in his own time was esteemed to be godly but by his own confession challenged that thought.  His honest self assessment is a strong contemporary challenge to pastors.  Can our grasp of the grace of Christ sustain such talk of ourselves?  Can our understanding of grace sustain such talk from a fellow pastor?  For Rutherford such talk was common.  His honest transparency and his radical dependence on Christ are the fountainheads of his ministry to my soul. It is good to have such a “friend”.

[1] Rutherford, Samuel. Letters of Samuel Rutherford, The Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, PA. 1973, p. 81

[2] Ibid, p. 81

Letting the Gospel Undo Sin

An amazing way to learn how the gospel works in our souls is to see what it undoes.  When Adam and Eve sinned many things changed but two things in particular can increase our understanding of the work of the gospel in the sinful broken soul.  Upon sinning Adam and Eve immediately knew things they did not know before and saw things they could not see before.  At first one might think that sinning actually improved their being.  Some people still think sinning makes life better.

Adam and Eve saw they were naked and knew they were ashamed.  This was not good.  Soon they heard a familiar sound; God walking in the garden. The sound that once made them run to God now made them run from Him.  Sin so distorts everything they actually thought they could hide from God in His own garden.  The very things that God gave us for our pleasure become the things we hide in because of the pain of sin.  Has your sin ever made you “hide from the presence of God among the trees”? What are the “trees” you hide in?

Sin did not actually change what Adam and Eve saw and heard. SIn changed how they saw and heard. What once was the sound of God seeking fellowhsip instantly became the alarm to hide in fear.  What once was the sight of shameless beauty became the shock of shameful brokenness.

What sin corrupts in creation the gospel re-creates without corruption.  The gospel “reopens” our eyes and our ears.  Through the gospel we no longer need to be ashamed nor do we need to hide.  We can see the goodness of God, hear of His salvation, and run to Him when He seeks us.  

The Christian and Suicide

Suicide is an unimaginable act to many people.  To the majority of people in the church the idea of a genuine Christian committing suicide is hardly in the realm of possibility.

For a person whose mind is sound, suicide is unthinkable. However, have you ever done anything under an unusual set of circumstances that at one time you said you would never do?  For one who has never had the right set of compiled circumstances combined with the horrid functions of an unsound mind, suicide is “something I would never do”.  But, for those who have known the crazed wit of a disturbed brain, suicide is not only possible – at times it seems to be one’s best option.  It “makes sense”.

We should keep in mind that being convinced we would never do something (commit adultery, lie, steal, cheat, commit suicide, get divorced) has never been grounds of objective proof we would not do it.  If you have never experienced the suffocationg horror that grasps the mind of the depressed it is unloving and unfair to even speak as if you understand the plight they are suffering. In truth you are unable to even come close to imaginging the terrors, confusions, fears, panic, shame, anger, and the hundred other unconnected thoughts and emotions that enter unwanted into the soul of the depressed. The mind can be overcome by such things with the force of a hurricane, flood, tsunami, forest fire, and a tornado all at once.  Charles Spurgeon once said, “the body can suffer only so much and then it dies, but the soul can suffer a thousand deaths.”  When you have died 999 times you are more than ready to make it happen for real the 1000th time to end your unbearable misery.

One problem we have in helping those who sufer mentally is that the counsel we give is “autobiographical”.  We all give counsel  out of our own experience and from our own very narrow perspective.  Some who suffer from a severe discouragement think they have experienced depression.  When they try to “help” a depressed friend it sounds something like, “If you will do what I did when I was depressed you can come out of this”. The counseling friend may mean well but in truth he is speaking out of one universe into another one – and the languages are not even built on the same basis – they are alien to one another.

It would do us all good when we are “helping” a hurting friend to assume, “I have never been where you are”, instead of “I have been where you are and here is how you can come out of it.” We are not mind readers and our small perspective is certainly not omnicompetent.  Compassion and patience will go a lot further than correction in these situations.

The internal world of the human soul is massive and mysterious.  A bit of humility before the soul of another and before the Maker of that precious soul would help us all. We do indeed share many similarities of soul as humans but none of us is exactly alike.  Let us  be keenly aware of our unique differences.  May our wise, merciful, and compassionate God teach us his wisdom, mercy, and compassion to those who suffer invisibly in the soul.

It is easy to stand outside the rip currents of the soul and tell someone how to swim out.  Being overtaken by the violence of the rip current is entirely different.  Once you have had the experience of being a helpless drowning soul your counsel to others takes on a different language.  Take it from someone who has been in both places.

The Grace of Law

Anything that points people to Christ is good. The Law of God points us to Christ by pointing out how rotten we are, exposing our need, and causing us to run to the only One who can come sufficiently to our aid. One plain reason we struggle with the Law today even though “we are not under law but under grace” is the Law still points out to us how rotten we are. And not even godly Christians like it when our sin is pointed out – even if it is God doing it.

If you use the Law rightly it will increase your love of Christ. Do not feel that you need to run from the Law. Let the Law continue its harsh and convicting work. Every where the Law points out a flaw in your character and conduct Grace floods in to pardon and to give power for a Christ honoring life. Face it, without the continuing work of the Holy Spirit through the Law of God we would be robbed of our desperation to have Christ. The conviction brought to our hearts by the Law of God is not to crush us; it is to crush our heart open so that we may freely receive more of Christ Jesus.

A simple way to say this is, the Law resisted is fertilize for bitterness. The Law received is fertilizer for grace to grow big!

Make sure to be clear, receiving the Law is not trying to obey it to gain God’s favor. Doing that is actually prideful. Receiving the Law is humbly accepting what it says about us – that we are lawbreakers and without Christ our Advocate we are doomed – then every time we see a fault in ourselves we do not despair but breakout in praise of our great Redeemer.

Then we will be pointing people to Jesus by such a life!

Be Strong in Grace

Just how is one to be strong in grace? We certainly cannot claim to have some skill that others do not have that would make us stronger in grace than those “grace weaklings”. It is definitely unbecoming to boast about being strong in grace. It seems that the only avenue through which to gain grace founded strength is the avenue of our own weaknesses. The door to the avenue of personal weakness is a most difficult door to walk through. The pain caused by seeing accurately one’s own weakness is more than the heart can bear. The radical double edged sword of Christ’s work of love and justice on the cross provides the only place the human heart can bear to gaze upon its own weakness.

The death of Christ on the cross is the place, the only place, a child of Adam can face his or her own true self and the true God at the same time. Both our sins and God’s holiness would crush us if Christ did not intervene. But, because of the Cross we can look at ourselves with full honesty and be accepted by God through Christ’s full holiness.

Shame, fear, and guilt caused by the reality of our sinful hearts cause us to shrink away from the presence of God. We lack the moral strength to look honestly at ourselves. Christ’s death enables us to see the darkness of our soul that we may receive the light of the gospel that dispels the darkness. We walk in the strengthening grace of God when we continue that intial gospel experience – holding in tension our massive weaknesses and Christ’s even greater grace – dark dispeled by His light.

When we forget our weakness we forget Christ’s grace. When we remember our weaknesses, we remember Christ’s grace. This makes for strong weaklings!

Can Temptations Be Smothered?

Austerity is a word you may not use too often but I would make a guess that it is a word you might live by in your relationship with God. Grace makes moral corrections in the life of God’s people. We incur a problem when we make moral change our end goal. We can be come austere in our efforts to “grow” as a Christian. What does austere mean? It means to be severely simple or morally strict or harsh. Austerity is moral severity.

Moral purity is important but if grace is not the means of pursuing moral purity it does not become life giving it actually becomes deadly. Think of it this way. You know what it feels like to burn with temptation. How do you handle your desire? Do you smother it? Do you fully admit it?

Richard Sibbes taught that we drive Christ’s comfort away from our souls when we try to smother our burning temptations through moral severity. “Smothering” a severe temptation in order to be free of it does just the opposite. You build an insulated wall that keeps the tenderness of the Savior out of your sinful smokey soul and you enclose the heat which only causes the temptation to burn hotter. Overtime this process turns the temporary success of smothering temptations through moral severity into a furnace for forging legalistic anger and magnified sin.

When we are tempted we imperil ourselves by looking to our moral strength. We should readily admit our moral weakness and turn our thoughts to a Savior who is big enough to give our smothering soul a vent to pour out our sin and sorrow. The vent of our Savior’s grace is sufficient to get the temptation and sin out of our soul as well as let the refreshing air of repentance in (Acts 3:19-20). The vent of Christ’s blood cleanses even our conscience (Hebrews 9:14, 10:22).

Are you tired of trying to control your temptations? Why not find vent for your soul in the throne room of grace to get the smoke of sin out and the refreshing air of grace wrought repentance in!

Trust and Temptation

Samuel Rutherford was asked for counsel from a friend who had lost his way in the darkness of earthly life’s difficulties.  Rutherford’s friend had been beaten up by life, he was discouraged, and was even doubting whether or not God loved him.  Rutherford’s advice was astounding.  First he said, “your doubts are your sins but they are your Physician’s drugs to cure your pride.”  Then, with great gentleness Rutherford reminded his puzzled friend that “our hearts are not the compass Christ sails by.”  In other words when life turns dark we are not to doubt what God has shown us in the light.  Our darkness may be from God’s own hand to mature our faith.  Sometimes spiritual fruit ripens best in the dark.

Darkness however is a time of great temptation.  We each look for our “drug” of choice to brighten our darkness and soothe our pain.  For some it is a literal drug.  For others it is wasting away in front of the mindless television for hours.  For some it is the ever satisfying false “comfort” that comes from looking at pornography.  And yet in each of these we are actually seeking our sense of personal worth outside of the love of God.

During one of Rutherford’s own dark periods he said of himself that “he found temptations risen from the dead that he long ago had buried.”  With this in mind I think a word directly to pastors is timely.  Do not expect your temptations to go away.  They will rise from the grave you buried them in.  There are some temptations we must constantly run from.  The Bible teaches us to flee temptation.  We do not have the power to resist – so we must run.  Why speak directly to pastors at this point?  There are too many thinking that they are manly enough to resist.  You are not, run.