Tag Archives: Sin

The Choice

In many ways, our Christian walk consists primarily of remaining mindful of God.  Put differently, it consists of remaining conscious of our relationship with God throughout the day.  This may take many different forms depending on the situations we find ourselves in.  It may be responding to an opportunity to serve another in a seemingly small way, or resisting the temptation to say something we’re better off not saying, or being willing to see someone in a different light than that of our own presumption, and so on.  This frequently amounts to being conscious of the choice that is regularly placed before us.  So often we respond to life in a reactionary way, especially in the course of our day-to-day activities.  Having a rhythm and routine to life is good and healthy, but it can also prove dangerous if we become passive and complacent in it.

Many times, we find ourselves falling short of the ideals we pursue for no other reason than we are not thinking about them at the time.  Sin sneaks in when we aren’t on the lookout for it.  It isn’t that we are going out of our way to deviate from Christ’s example, it’s more the case that we drift off the path.  Rather than turning opposite the way we want to go, it’s more like following traffic off of the highway without thinking about whether it’s the right exit or not.  The choices that are spiritually harmful to us often stem from sinful habit rather than sinful motive.  The situations that provide us with these choices are typically more subtle than being presented with two options obviously marked as right and wrong.  They tend to be more concerned with things like the type of attitude we maintain throughout the day, what we are going to let our mind linger on, and so forth.

As we ponder this, there is a very real possibility of going to the other extreme and going out of our way to shoehorn everything into a choice format.  The fact is that we don’t need to go out and find choices to make, we simply need to be aware of the choices already before us.

It may help to consider things from a different angle.  Near the end of the book of Deuteronomy, in which the Old Testament Law is laid out for the Israelites, Moses speaks to the assembly and says the following:

“I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the LORD your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.”

-Deuteronomy 30:19-20

In short, the Israelites have been plainly told the way to life and the way to death.  Given this knowledge, they are implored to choose the way to life.

Moving closer to home, in the context of the New Testament and New Covenant we are under, Jesus sets down the foundation upon which all of the instruction in the Old Testament hangs.  When asked what the greatest commandment is, Christ replies with the following:

“Jesus said to him, ‘“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’”

-Matthew 22:37-40

Here, Christ sets down for us the heart of what it means to be obedient to God in simple terms.  As the Way, He shows us what it looks like to follow the Way which leads to life.

Returning to being mindful of the choices that come before us, being conscious of these choices and responding appropriately does not require that we constantly unfold a massive flow chart to identify them and decide what to do.  Nor does it require that we set ourselves on-edge as if we are taking history’s most dire multiple-choice test.  What it calls for is shining a light, plain and simple.  This light is the light of God’s word and by it, we can see to stay on the right path as well as catch anything unsavory that would try to sneak in under the cover of darkness.  One way we may go about it is simply keeping the two greatest commandments in mind as we go about our business.  Is my attitude one that loves God?  By saying x, am I loving my neighbor as myself?  These are some of the questions that sprout from such a mindset.  As they do, they cast light upon the choices we are making and allow us to see more clearly so that we may choose life.

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Remembering the Last Things – Part 2

Previously we discussed contemplating the final judgment in which all of humanity shall stand before God. In particular, we focused on the Scriptural precedent for such ruminations. With that groundwork laid, we will now proceed to more practical matters.

Part 1 was wrapped up with the juxtaposition of the fearsomeness of the judgment and the precious hope of grace. As we weigh anchor and set out for this particular cruising ground of meditation, it is of great importance that we understand our purpose in doing so. Although compunction (a holy sorrow for our sins) is a part of this line of thought, it is only a part and not the sum of the whole. These meditations do not end in despair, but quite the opposite: they renew our trust in God’s grace and urge us on in our pilgrimage here on earth.

In order to present some form and order for our line of thought I will defer to Evagrius Ponticus, a figure from the deserts of ancient Christianity. Despite some of his theological shortcomings, his insight and ability as a guide for the soul remain potent helps for us.

“Evagrius said, ‘While you sit in your cell, recall your attention, and remember the day of your death and you will see that your body is decaying. Think about the loss, feel the pain. Shrink from the vanity of the world outside. Be retiring, and be careful to keep your vow of quiet, and you will not weaken. Remember the souls in hell. Meditate on their condition, the bitter silence and the moaning, the fear and the strife, the waiting and the pain without relief, the tears that cannot cease to flow. Remember too the day of resurrection, imaging God’s terrible and awful judgment. Bring into your sight the confusion of sinners before God and His Christ, before angels and archangels and powers, and all the human race, punishment, everlasting fire, the worm that never dies, the darkness of Tartarus – and above them all the sound of the gnashing teeth, dread and torments. Bring before your eyes the good laid up for the righteous, their confidence before God the Father and Christ His Son, before angels and archangels and the powers, and all the people in the kingdom of heaven and its gifts, joy and peace. Remember all this. Weep and lament for the judgment of sinners, keep alert to the grief they suffer; be afraid that you are hurrying towards the same condemnation. Rejoice and exult at the good laid up for the righteous. Aim at enjoying the one, and being far from the other. Do not forget this, whether you in your cell or outside it. Keep these memories in your mind and so cast out of it the sordid thoughts that harm you.’”

-Excerpt from “The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks” translated by Benedicta Ward

Evagrius’ roadmap begins with the acceptance of our own mortality. This subject alone is a peculiar one, for, as a culture, we typically spend a great deal of time in shoving this fact to the back of our consciousness rather than accepting and living with it. However, taking time to remember that our lives are, in fact, finite helps us to get a more concrete grasp on our existence and reminds us that there will come a time when the physical overlay will be rolled back to reveal the eternal.

Next we contemplate and consider the horrors and suffering of souls in hell. It is important here to do two things: first, to remember that this outcome is the result of one’s own hardness of heart and refusal to accept salvation; second, to recall these things in a direct and real manner, not as the reminiscence of some Sulphur-laden outburst from the pulpit. If we only think of it as something that we’ve been told by a preacher or evangelism tract, it is very easy for hell to become a sort of boogeyman: perhaps disconcerting, but nothing more than a story told to make us behave. In the sort of meditation we are talking about here, we take out the middlemen and think upon hell in all of its horrific reality. This may bring us a little too close for comfort, but it is only natural that we should be upset by the eventualities of sin.

From the depths of hell, we move on to ponder the flipside of eternity: the joy and peace of heaven. Just as we embraced the realities of hell, we now turn to the realities of heaven, not as a sugar-coated bauble meant to entice us towards good behavior but as our ultimate goal and fulfillment, the Promised Land which God seeks to bring us to where we shall be with Him forever. This practice helps us familiarize ourselves with and acquire a taste for the things of heaven. This is not to say that godliness is an acquired taste, it isn’t that we must teach ourselves to like it. Rather, it is more the case that we must take the time to seek it out and allow ourselves to partake of it. For in many ways, the temptations of the devil are aimed at drawing our attention from heaven and warping our desire so that it seeks purely earthly things.

Evagrius concludes by urging us to keep the content of our meditation in mind at all times, to remain mindful of the truth we have pondered. This helps us to see things more accurately, in light of eternity. Perhaps the most accurate and succinct way to describe our meditations on heaven and hell is a realignment of the soul. It is a way in which we shake off the deceit of the devil’s machinations and allow God to clear away the corrosion that has built up on the eyes of our hearts so that we can see the world as it really is. We step back, humbled, from the idols of self-righteousness that we have erected and recommit ourselves to making God our all-in-all, casting ourselves upon His great mercy and love.

Further Exploration:

Here is a condensed version of Evagrius’ order of meditation:

  • Remember your own mortality, one day you will die
  • Recall the suffering and regret of souls in hell
  • Recall the joy and peace of souls in heaven
  • Remember these things and so aim at avoiding hell and pursuing heaven

Scripture to think on:

  • Matthew 25:31-46
  • Revelation 20:11-21:8

Remembering the Last Things – Part 1

There are many things that we can think and meditate upon for the profit of our souls. One that is often recommended to us by the Christians of antiquity is our inevitable death and judgment before God. Granted, in a time in which we have seen and continue to see such topics handled with all the finesse and discretion of rusty cleaver, contemplating death and judgment is less than appealing and seems to be the purview of a rabid and thoughtless theology. However, what I would like to ask of you is to set those impressions aside as best you can and approach this idea on its own, for what it is.

Let’s start with a Scriptural precedent for such contemplations, for they do not have their origins in the desire of one person to control another. Rather, they spring from the desire that a person should control him/herself. (While I won’t touch on it directly, it would be remiss of me not to mention the entirety of the book of Revelation here.)

Paul writes the following to the Corinthians:

“For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”

-2 Corinthians 5:1-10

Paul calls the church’s attention to the final judgment in order to give them perspective on their current condition; a perspective that includes eternity.

Peter also urges us to remain mindful of the Day of Judgment in light of the evils we encounter in life:

“For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? Now ‘If the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?’ Therefore let those who suffer according to will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.”

-1 Peter 4:17-19

In both of these instances from Scripture, the final judgment is not presented to invoke mindless fear, but as occasion for thoughtful reflection and, in particular, introspection. It is such recollection that helps to keep us anchored to God as we navigate the seas of life.

Yet another instance in Scripture in which are urged to be mindful of the last things comes from Christ Himself. Throughout Matthew 24:45-25:46, Jesus provides us with four parables that we might meditate upon the final judgment; namely, the parable of the faithful servant and the evil servant (24:45-51), the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (25:1-13), the parable of the talents (25:14-30), and the parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46). To whom is Christ telling these parables? His disciples. The meditation of judgment is presented to those following Christ that we should be careful to be prepared; that we should search our hearts and see to it that, insofar as it has been given to us, we live our lives in response to the grace we receive from God. Sometimes we may fall into overlooking our daily struggle with sin and become self-conceited. It is from such pride, I think, that a great many errors of churches spring. It leads us to veer from our calling to follow God and to instead serve ourselves and act as though we were self-sufficient, having no need of God other than as a mascot of our organization.

Now it bears mentioning where the idea of assurance of salvation/“perseverance of the saints” fits into this topic we’ve been discussing. If we trust in God to bring us safely to the port of heaven, what practical gain is there for us in contemplating His judgment? There is much that could be said of this concept, but here I will only provide a brief and pragmatically oriented response. First, when Scripture speaks to us of election, assurance of salvation, and so forth, a large portion of what is being communicated to us is that our trust in God in never misplaced. Second, concerning the intersection of our trust in God’s grace and our consideration of the fires of hell, I offer 2 Peter 1:10 where the apostle writes the following after a brief call to continued spiritual growth, “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble;”

So we can see that Scripture encourages us to pause and remember that God will judge all people at the appointed time. Such practice is good for our soul because it reminds us not to become complacent or careless in our Christian walk. Paul sums up well the purpose of the reminders of fearsome judgment and precious hope we see in Scripture when he writes the following concerning the instances seen in the Old Testament:

“Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make a way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”

-1 Corinthians 10:11-13


Heroes and Villains – Professor G. H. Dorr

“You, madam, are addressing a man, who is in fact quiet… and yet, not quiet, if I may offer you a riddle.”

– The Professor to Mrs. Munson

GHDorr2

Some villains stand out because of the threat they pose through sheer power or destructive capabilities.  Professor G.H. Dorr, on the other hand, is of a different sort.  Cutting the figure of a Southern gentleman, he seems to possess a devilish charm rather than devilish intent.  As a matter of fact, his skills seem limited to a great capacity for thought, having been “trained in the art of cogitation”, and an aptitude for speaking.  However, these tools are more than sufficient for him to manipulate others into helping him to achieve his goals.  In the 2004 film, The Ladykillers, the Professor is the mastermind behind a seemingly perfect riverboat casino heist.  Having gathered to himself the necessary personnel and skill sets, the motley crew executes his plan without a hitch, that is until the owner of the house they’ve been using as a base finds out.  The Professor then must convince the owner, one Mrs. Marva Munson not to call the police and turn them in.  When he finds that straight up lying about their actions will not work, he turns to convincing her that what they did isn’t really so bad.  He explains to her that the casino is itself little more than a den of thieves and inequity.  Not only that, but it has an insurance policy to cover such losses as being robbed and, he claims, after doing the math, their little venture will not cost anyone more than a penny.  Furthermore, he lies to Mrs. Munson, each of his accomplices and himself are going to donate a portion of their shares of the loot to charitable causes and they were going to donate a whole share to a cause particularly near and dear to her heart.  The Professor rests his case by pointing out the good that can be done the money they donate at the cost of a single cent to all those adversely affected.  When backed into a corner, Professor plays his most insidious card, trying to convince Ms. Munson that their crime is not such a bad thing and getting her to go along with it.

In the book of Jeremiah, God says that He will stretch out his hand against the Israelites “…Because from the least of them even to the greatest of them everyone is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even to the priest, everyone deals falsely.  They have also healed the hurt of My people slightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace!’ when there is no peace.  Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination?  No!  They were not at all ashamed; nor did they know how to blush.  Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time I punish them, they shall be cast down,’ says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 6:13-15)  God calls out the prophets and priests at this time, who were supposed to lead the people back to God and to speak His word to them, for being as corrupt as the rest of the people.  Not only that, but they are unashamed of having become so.  However what is perhaps most striking is that they have healed His people slightly.  The word that gets translated as slightly carries with it the connotations of trifling or of little account.  Arguably, the prophets and priests had made little of their job to direct the people to God and therefore done little to that end.  On the contrary, they have comforted and further secured the people in their predicament by telling them that all is well when it is clearly not the case.  The prophets and priests should have been telling the people to repent and change their ways.  However, because they were also participants in the backsliding, they whitewashed the situation and lied to the people about the true state of things.

It is very tempting for us to do the same.  We try to convince ourselves and others that there is no problem or even a need to change our course when we find our way into sin.  We are all too eager to justify ourselves rather than repent and let God be our justifier.  There are many reasons why we are inclined to do this:  we shy away from admitting that we were in the wrong, or we enjoy our sin too much to let it go are just a couple of examples.  At the core, however, we find ourselves playing the role of the Professor and trying to make our vices out to be virtues.

We have readily available to us the written Word of God which is able to reveal what is in our hearts (Hebrews 4:12).  When our sinful deeds are brought to light, we are faced with the choice either to continue in the way we are going or to turn back to God.  Unfortunately, we often opt to continue on our merry way down the path of sin.  The only problem is that it requires that we become hypocrites, claiming to be in the right while doing the very things that we know from God’s Word to be wrong.  Being a hypocrite is not something that sits very well with us and so we try to rationalize the sin in our lives so that, in our minds, we aren’t doing anything wrong.  We come up with excuses about how it is a greater good than harm or how others deserve whatever harm we may be causing them (even if it is just murdering them in our hearts), or how it really isn’t that big of a deal, seeing how in the grand scheme of things it only amounts to a drop the bucket…or a single penny.

The thing that makes these lies we tell ourselves (and others for that matter) so dangerous is that they lull us right into death.  Like the prophets and priests from Jeremiah, we proclaim our peace and wellbeing when our souls are grievously wounded and rapidly bleeding out.  There are few greater harms that we can do ourselves or others than to say that we are spiritually well when we teeter on the very lip of hell.  It amounts to blinding ourselves to our real state and stopping our ears against God’s pleas to turn back while there is still time.  These lies need not be our own inventions either.  Paul writes to his protégé Timothy, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4)  It is not only ourselves, but many others as well who wish to paint what is noble as wicked and what is wicked as noble.  This means that there is a large market for such lies and there are those who are all too eager to supply that market.  Thus, we cannot rely on the world at large to be our guide and teacher in matters of the soul.  Rather, our ability to stay on the straight and narrow path is a matter between God and ourselves, aided by those trustworthy souls that God brings alongside us in our pilgrimage.

What makes the Professor such an awful rogue is that he embodies that voice which gently and quietly leads us to the wrong on a daily basis.  It often comes well-dressed and expresses itself with the greatest articulation.  It is charming and seems harmless enough.  As a matter of fact, it seems to have our best interests at heart.  Nonetheless, behind the charming façade is a path that leads straight to hell.

Food for Thought:

  1. Is there a sin in my life that I have colored to be a virtue?
  2. In what ways am I tempted by the world’s lies about what is or isn’t right?
  3. Consider what a great gift it is that God has provided us with the Scriptures to be a guide and an anchor for us.

Heroes and Villains – Ryu

“Sometimes the most important battle, is the battle within…”

-Ryu

Ryu

Ryu is one of the most well known video game characters, right up with the likes of Mario and Megaman.  He made his first appearance in the 1987 arcade game “Street Fighter” and has since become something of a mascot for the Street Fighter series and the company which created it, Capcom.  Ryu is a martial artist who travels the world fighting all kinds of opponents seeking to further hone his skills.  Despite his benign goals, he is plagued by a dark power within him, the Satsui no Hado or dark hado.  The Satsui no Hado (translated as “Surge of Murderous Intent”) is a sinister power that arises within individuals when they become so consumed with rage or the desire for power that they are willing to kill for it.  In Ryu’s case, it was awakened in him when he was pushed to his absolute limit while fighting a powerful opponent.  He eventually loses control of himself and wins the bout with a single vicious attack powered by the dark hado.  Ever since that time it has threatened to consume him and take away his heart and his humanity.  Ryu’s heroics do not lie primarily in fighting villains, but in his struggle with the evil within himself.

Like Ryu’s Satsui no Hado, sin is and remains a constant threat to us during our lives here on earth.  Paul writes about our struggle against it in Romans 7:21-25:  “I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good.  For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man.  But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.”  Even though sin’s power over us has been broken, this does not mean that evil remains idle.  God’s warning to Cain back in Genesis 4:7 is every bit as applicable to us today:  “If you do well, will you not be accepted?  And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door.  And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”  Sin no longer has the last word, but that doesn’t stop it from constantly trying to coax and cajole us back into its service.  It lies at our door (“crouching” in the English Standard Version) accosting us at every opportunity.  God also wants us and seeks us at every turn, but His desire for us is very different than sin’s.  Sin wants us so that it can consume us.  God wants us so that we may be filled with Him thereby receiving life everlasting and being shaped into the person He created us to be.

With sin so persistently after us, Paul advises us to think of our Christian walk as an athletic contest.  He writes, “Do you not know that those who run a race all run, but one receives the prize?  Run in such a way that you may obtain it.  And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things.  Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.  Therefore I run thus:  not with uncertainty.  Thus I fight:  not as one who beats the air.  But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)  The prize that athletes receive for winning a contest is a perishable one, one that does not last (as a matter of fact, Paul is probably here referring to the crown of laurels that was awarded in ancient Greece, a crown of leaves and branches that would wither).  Paul states, however, that in our Christian walks we are striving for a crown of eternal consequence.  The imperishable crown of which he speaks is the crown of life used as a metaphor for the eternal life with and in God that we receive. (Revalation 2:10, 3:11)  The contest of Christianity has the highest stakes and we compete, not against others, but against ourselves, sin, and the devil.

Although Christ has won the victory for us against sin, we cannot sit back and rest on our laurels, for we must follow Christ in order to cross the finish line.  Paul urges us to be deliberate in our living:  “Therefore I run thus:  not with uncertainty.  Thus I fight:  not as one who beats the air.”  The decision to follow Jesus is a deliberate setting of ourselves against our former ways and a decision that we must make many times each day (as many times as sin urges us to return to it).  Making this decision is no easy task.  Just like a martial artist (or any other athlete) we must train ourselves as we pursue our goal.  Martial artists train themselves by such means as weightlifting, practicing kata, running drills, cardiovascular exercises, etc.  Christians train themselves by meditating, reading Scripture, praying, serving, etc.  The goal is the same:  to further immerse oneself in and become more proficient at one’s art.  The Christian’s art is to rely on God alone and become ever more conformed to Christ’s image.

Ryu’s training and travels may serve as a metaphor for the kind of pilgrimage that Christians are on.  Though he is well traveled, Ryu’s destination is not a physical place, but an intangible one:  ever further mastery of his art.  Likewise Christians, no matter how far we go or how spiritually mature we become, have no physical destination.  As a matter of fact our destination cannot be found in this world, tangible or intangible.  “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.  For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland.  And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)  Christians constantly seek the heavenly country that God has prepared for them in eternity.  The Kingdom of Heaven which grows in our hearts is a foretaste of the rest which awaits us.  Despite the constant attack of the dark hado upon him, Ryu remains dedicated to his journey.  Likewise, despite sin’s attack we ought to remain dedicated to our Christian journey.

It is worth noting that Ryu doesn’t have a perfect track record when it comes to resisting the dark hado.  There have been times that it has successfully taken over him, but he was able to come to his senses again, not due to his abilities alone but with the help of his friends who called him back to himself.  Ryu’s battle with the dark hado is not a solitary one, but one in which he is helped and supported by others.  Our battle against sin is not a solitary one either.  God is always with us and He has also created the Church in which we are able to help and support one another as fellow pilgrims.  We cannot stand alone against sin because there will be times that we stumble or lose our way and need others to help us up and to lead us back to the straight and narrow way.

Ryu shows us that being a hero isn’t always about battling villains but sometimes consists in battling the evil that dwells within us.  It is about the daily resisting of that evil and the training that helps us to resist.  For Christians, this means learning to rely on God rather than ourselves and to draw from His strength rather than our own.  “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man:  but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)

Food for Thought:

  1. Am I actively following Christ’s call to heaven or am I sitting idle and waiting for heaven to come to me?
  2. Do I merely go through the motions and fight as one who beats the air or do I discipline myself and bring myself in subjection to Christ?
  3. Consider what a mercy it is that God helps me in my struggle to follow Him.

Heroes and Villains – The Ringwraiths

“Nine he gave to Mortal Men, proud and great, and so ensnared them.  Long ago they fell under the dominion of the One, and they became Ringwraiths, shadows under his great Shadow, his most terrible servants.”

-Gandalf concerning the Ringwraiths

Nazgul_1

They cast a shadow far before them and seem to materialize out of the rumors whispered throughout Middle Earth.  The Ringwraiths’ sinister presence leaves an impression on any audience.  Originally humans, the Ringwraiths, or Nazgûl, were each given a ring of power by Sauron (the chief antagonist of Tolkien’s trilogy) which corrupted them and eventually led to them being enslaved to his will.  Despite their former glory and vivacity, they have been rendered mere shades that lead a nightmarish existence between worlds.  They ruthlessly and tirelessly serve their master and inspire fear and despair wherever they tread.

Dark as the Nazgûl are, their story casts light on the nature of sin in our lives.  James writes:  “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.  But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed.  Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it full-grown, brings forth death.” (James 1:13-15)  James states that sin has its beginnings in desire.  This is why we cannot be right with God just by doing the right things (being a “good person”, following the Law, etc.).  Despite our outward appearance, our first loyalty is still to ourselves and sin rather than God.  Our own efforts are not able to get deep enough to reach sin’s root.  Thus, though we may chop and hack away at the branches, they will quickly grow back, tougher than ever.

In the case of the Nazgûl, their desire for greater power and prestige led them to accept the nine rings from Sauron.  It was at this point that their fates were sealed because they had given him the foothold he needed to corrupt them.  It is worth noting that we find ourselves in the same straits because our desire is already in rebellion against God, leading us away from Him and indulging our pride, greed, and base sensuality.  The difference is that we have a Savior who has broken the power of darkness over us and given us a way of escape that we may “have life and have it more abundantly”.  Part of the renewing work that God does within us is to reclaim our desires so that they are conformed to Christ.  That is to say, we come to desire the same things as God:  we are pleased by the same things which please God, we are saddened by the same things which sadden God, etc.

Sinful desire, in its due course, eventually gives rise to sinful action:  the outworking of that desire.  The rebellion that began as desire has diffused throughout our body like a poison and manifests itself as words, deeds, and thoughts.  In the Book of Romans, Paul admonishes:  “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey its lusts.  And do not present our members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” (Romans 6:12-13)  When we fall into sin, we surrender to our sinful desires and allow them to rule over us.  As Christians, the times when we stumble ought to serve as a stark reminder that we must seek the grace of God daily and constantly strive to remain in His love, for sin only requires a small foothold to scale the walls of our heart.  The Ringwraiths did not become shades overnight, but were slowly and steadily consumed by the power of the rings they held and brought under Sauron’s dominion.  It is often said of them that they are slaves to his will.  The desire in which they took the rings led them, inevitably, to give their very beings over to serve the will of Sauron.

Sin ultimately leads to death, and not mere physical death.  The death that we die through sin is more extensive than that:  sin leads to our spiritual death.  It may be the misery that we find under the veneer of sinful pleasure or it may be the emptiness that we are left with when the moment of sinful delight is gone.  Regardless of the form, sin always leaves us less of who we are.  God creates us all to be beautiful mirrors who each reflect His likeness in a unique way.  (How else can finite creatures begin to show the likeness of the infinite Creator in the world?)  The result of sin is to warp and tarnish us so that we are no longer what we’re created to be.  We become bent upon ourselves so that we reflect nothing and take part in nothing other than our continuing destruction until sin is cast into hell to be infinitely destroyed and us as well because we cling to it.

What is perhaps most horrifying about the Ringwraiths is what they are, or rather, what they are not.  They are vacuums of existence, having been gutted and hollowed out by the power of the rings and filled with Sauron’s evil.  They really are personifications of darkness, being mere extensions of Sauron’s will.  When we allow sin to reign in us, it hollows us out and we are consumed rather than conformed.  Life becomes death to us and death, our existence.  “…when desire has conceived, it give birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.”

The Ringwraiths provide a representation of what we become when we allow ourselves to be consumed by sin.  We lose ourselves and become a mere shadow within a greater shadow.  This is the end that awaits us and we ourselves can do nothing about it.  It appears that we are destined to be wraiths.  We cry with Paul “O wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  However, a door is open to us that we may leave our death-defined existence and enter into life.  Through His sacrifice on the cross, Christ has made a way for us.  Thus He says, “I am the door.  If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.  The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.  I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:9-10)

Food for Thought:

  1. What is the sin in my life holding me back from?  How can I better pursue those things by making Christ my top priority?
  2. What does it mean to have life in Christ and have it abundantly?
  3. Consider what an excellent thing it is to receive life in and from Christ.

Temptation is no Laughing Matter!!

Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!! (ドウンタウンのガキの使いやあらへんで!!) is a popular Japanese variety show the name of which translates as “Downtown’s ‘This is no task for kids!!’”.  It is hosted by the comedic duos known as Downtown and Cocorico along with comedian Hōsei Yamasaki and features a variety of skits, games, and other antics.  Perhaps the most intense of these is the annual “no-laughing” batsu (punishment) game that the cast engages in to ring in the New Year.  During these games, the hosts undergo a 24-hour “training” session for some job (such as spy, reporter, or hotel man) during which they are strictly forbidden to laugh.  If they do laugh, they are immediately punished (usually with a swift whack to the posterior).  However, the “training” that they receive is a series of skits and set-ups designed for the sole purpose of making them laugh.  The winner is the one who receives the least number of punishments.  Needless to say, the final tallies are all always in the triple digits.

While the show primarily provides wild and often unpredictable entertainment, it also gives us a mirror of sorts that shows us how things turn out when we try to stop sinning using our own willpower.  Just as the hosts are told to stop laughing one day, we also are tempted to think that we can just decide to stop sinning.  The problem is that our decision is to stop sinning, not to submit to God, which is at the heart of the matter.  We cannot overcome sin except by God’s grace.  Without resting in this grace we keep ourselves at the mercy of sin just as the hapless hosts are at the mercy of the pranks and skits they encounter.  No matter how hard they try, they will inevitably break down and laugh.  Similarly, we can fight temptation as hard as we want, but it will always win in the end if we don’t have God in the equation.

James sums up this dynamic by writing:  “Therefore submit to God.  Resist the devil and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.  Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts you double-minded.  Lament and mourn and weep!  Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord and He will lift your up.” (James 4:7-10)  Submission to God comes first and foremost.  When we humble ourselves before God, then and only then are we able to rely on His strength to resist the devil and temptation.  When we think about what James means by “Let your laughter be turned to mourning…” we shouldn’t be lead to the conclusion that being humble before God means that we should never laugh or be joyful.  Jesus presents what this humility is about in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. (Luke 18:9-14)  The tax collector who “went down to his house justified” sounds a lot like James’ description of humbling ourselves.  The key lies not in any particular emotional state, but in recognizing God as our savior, our justifier, rather than ourselves.  “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

So it is that when we trust in God rather than ourselves, we meet with better results in avoiding sin than the Gaki members do in their ill-fated attempts to avoid laughter (and the subsequent punishments).