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Not long ago, I took an eight-month leave of absence from my pastoral duties. No preaching. No book-writing. No blogging. No tweeting. No church responsibilities. I called it a soul check. With the help of my wife, Noël, and a counselor, I did more soul-searching than I can remember ever doing before. I wanted to know my most intransigent sins. And I wanted to make war on them in fresh ways.
So let me give you a summary diagnosis of some of John Piper's most besetting sins. I have fought them for decades. I think my wife would say I am winning a few battles since the leave of absence. How those battles are being fought is what this article is about.
But first, the diagnosis. Everyone should do this for his own soul. Pastors, you will know your people's souls best by knowing your own. So try to be ruthlessly honest with yourself. The key here is not professionalism. The best soul-searcher and the best counselor may have no letters after their names. The key is brutal, broken vulnerability and honesty, sustained by pleas for mercy, and soaked in the riches of Scripture—both its warnings and its wonders.
The enemy identified
My characteristic sins are selfishness, anger, self-pity, quickness to blame, and sullenness. Let me describe them in their ugliness one at a time. And hear me not as coolly analytical here but sorrowful and remorseful and thankful for the cross of Christ and for grace.
Selfishness: virtually the same as pride and is the deep, broad corruption that is at the bottom of it all. I would give it five traits:
- Selfishness is a reflex to expect to be served.
- Selfishness is a reflex to feel that I am owed.
- Selfishness is a reflex to want praise.
- Selfishness is a reflex to expect that things will go my way.
- Selfishness is a reflex to feel that I have the right to react negatively to being crossed.
The reason I use the word "reflex" to describe the traits of selfishness is that there is no premeditation. When these responses happen, they are coming from nature, not reflection. They are the marks of my sinful nature—original sin.
Anger: the strong emotional opposition to the obstacle in my way. I tighten up and want to strike out verbally or physically. (Lest I raise unhelpful suspicions in your mind, I have never hit my wife—not even close.)
Self-pity: a desire that others feel my woundedness and admire me for my being mistreated and move to show me some sympathy.
Quickness to blame: a reflex to attribute to others the cause of the frustrating situation I am in. Others may feel it in a tone of voice, a look on the face, a sideways query, or an outright accusation.
Sullenness: the sinking discouragement, moodiness, hopelessness, unresponsiveness, withdrawn deadness of emotion.
And, of course, the effect on marriage is that my wife feels blamed and disapproved of rather than cherished and cared for. Tender emotions start to die. Hope is depleted. Strength to carry on in the hardships of ministry wanes.
The battle plan
The link between the cross and the conquered sin in my life is my Holy-Spirit-empowered will. And that empowering by the Spirit is blood bought. "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly" (Rom. 5:5-6).
In other words, God intends that part of our experience of sanctification be the conscious, willed, opposition to specific sins in our lives. I only say "part" of our experience of sanctification because this is not the whole work of sanctification. In some areas of sin, God simply takes away the desire and the temptation is gone, and we don't have to fight it any more.
Now here is what God showed me on my leave of absence: For decades I have applied this battle plan to sexual temptation but hardly at all to the sins of selfishness, anger, self-pity, blaming, and sullenness. I have engaged my will head-on with sexual lust. I have heard Jesus say, "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell" (Matt. 5:29). Nobody spontaneously tears out his eye. That is an act of will overcoming all kinds of natural disinclination. That's what I do when any illicit sexual thought tries to gain the ascendancy in my mind.
I go on the attack with A.N.T.H.E.M.:
- Say NO! within five seconds.
- TURN to something magnificent, like Christ crucified.
- HOLD the pure thing in the mind until the temptation is gone.
- ENJOY the greater pleasure of the blood-bought promises of God.
- MOVE on to meaningful Christ-exalting activity.
There is nothing passive in my will when the lion of lust comes out of the bushes. I don't lie down and wait for a miracle. I act the miracle. I will explain that phrase in just a moment.
What I realized was that I was not applying any of this same gospel vigilance—what Peter O'Brien calls "continuous, sustained, strenuous effort"—against my most besetting sins. I was strangely passive, victim-like. I had the unarticulated sense (mistakenly) that these sins (unlike sexual lust) should be defeated more spontaneously—with less direct use of my will. It should all happen naturally from the inside out. And if I tried to attack them with my will the way I did sexual lust, it would produce external conformity, not internal change. But I never let that thought stop me from attacking lust.
The text that broke though my inconsistency was Philippians 2:12-13.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so
now, not only as in my presence but much more in my
absence, work out your own salvation with fear and
trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and
to work for his good pleasure.
Why should there be "fear and trembling" as I attack my sin and bring about salvation from self-pity? The reason given in the text is not a threat. It's a gift. Work to kill your sin, and will to kill your sin, and do it with fear and trembling because God Almighty—Maker of heaven and earth, Redeemer, Justifier, Sustainer, Father, Lover—is so close to you that your working and willing is his working and willing. Tremble at this breathtaking thought. God Almighty is in you. God is the one in you willing. God is the one in you working. Your "continuous, sustained, strenuous" effort is not only being carried out in the presence of the all-holy God, but is the very continuous, sustained, strenuous effort of God himself. I am not waiting for a miracle. I am acting a miracle. God is the decisive cause, but my will is the agent. And it becomes the agent in obedience to the command "work!" For in your working, God is working.
John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served more than thirty years as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.
This is an excerpt from the revised edition of Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (B&H Publishing Group, 2013).
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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