“That’s a bit harsh!”
This was my refrain as I read through Chapters 5-6 of You Can Change. As Chester again takes truths that are neither new nor especially complicated to their logical end point, I find myself baulking at his big view of sin. This is not to say that he is wrong and I am right. Much more likely, this is exactly what I need to hear.
Chester doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to extreme statements about sin and its root causes. Let’s just look at one such statement from these chapters. How did you feel reading the following?
“We sin because we believe that we are better off without God, that his rule is oppressive, that we will be free without him, that sin offers more than God.”(p. 81)
In short, sin is a symptom of unbelief.
On one level, this is not a difficult statement to understand, but it sure can be hard to get your head around! How can I simultaneously be both a believer and an unbeliever? It sounds a bit harsh! If I’ve already confessed to faith in Christ, what more do I need to change? There were a couple of concepts in the chapter that helped me to make sense of it, and more importantly, to know what to do about it.
The idea that we often have confessional faith combined with functional disbelief was useful in understanding the process of sanctification. If we think back to the moment we first believed, we would say that our faith was largely ‘confessional’ in nature. As time goes by, what we do will reflect more of what we confess, until on the last day our actions will perfectly match the faith we confess to have in Christ. What a glorious thought!
Passages such as James 2:14-25 (“…In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead…”) make so much more sense when we’re ready to accept how closely related belief is to sin. In the past I would have said that of course when we believe in Christ we respond in thankfulness by our deeds. In other words, because we believe a particular thing, we choose to act in a particular way. But what if the connection is tighter than that? What if when we believe a particular thing, we have no choice but to act in a particular way? In this case, our actions become watertight proof of what we truly believe. It follows then, that if we want to work on sin, we need to focus not on our behaviour, but on our underlying beliefs.
The concept of reflecting on specific sins to work out what lies lurk beneath them was, to me, mind-blowing in its simplicity. Most likely this comes down to how little time I spend pondering my own sin. As shameful as this is, my usual pattern is to briefly confess sin in general terms, or to ask for prayer about a specific sin, but then neglect to think about it any further. If sin is a product of my beliefs, no wonder progress is so elusive when I so rarely think about it. Perhaps I don’t think much about my sin because I’ve never known what to think, except that I should stop. The four truths that Chester reminds us of- that God is great, that God is glorious, that God is good, and that God is gracious- form a helpful framework to start the thought process.
Chapter 5 ends on a note that I hope to carry with me for a long time:
“To say to temptation ‘I must not do this’ is legalism. To say ‘I need not do this because God is bigger and better’ is good news.” (p. 104) Funny how much less harsh- and more helpful- the second statement is! This might just be the beginning of genuine change.