An Imperceptible Change in Trajectory

One of my all-time favorite reads is “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis. If you have not yet read “Screwtape,” suffice to say that Lewis offers the reader an often-witty, memorable account of how the enemy of our souls – let’s just call him “Satan” and get that piece of theological business out of the way – does not, as some might imagine, stride right up to us and boldly challenge us with a statement such as, “There is no way that Jesus Christ is the one and only Son of God.” That sort of full-frontal-assault rarely works to discourage the believer.

Rather, Satan and his minions do their best work when subtlety is in place, and particularly when they can use our own vanity and pride against us. Truly damaging, entrenched evil takes statements of truth and twists them almost imperceptibly, but just enough to divert the individual off a trajectory toward Christ. And oftentimes, we don’t even see the shift until we’ve wandered quite far.

One particularly-damaging form of this kind of evil takes a good and God-honoring interest in understanding theology and turns it into Pharisaic navel-gazing. A professed believer can become so captivated by the finer points of theology that they miss entirely the call of Jesus to love others, the very heart of the gospel message.

Jesus was absolutely relentless in His attacks on the Pharisees (Matthew 23), and it’s important for us to remember that nearly everyone in His culture at the time thought of the Pharisees as “the good guys,” the religious leaders who stood firm against idolatry and the intrusion of false belief systems into the faith. All that being true, Jesus condemned their propensity to “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24). The clear message in that word picture is that in focusing on the details, the Pharisees missed the big picture message of God – that of loving Him and others with a devoted heart.

It seems equally clear to me that whenever we Christians prefer to argue the finer points of our theology without also serving in ministries that bring us into close proximity with the people who need to be introduced to the God of that theology, we too have swallowed a camel somewhere along the way.

Another similar example came to me as I was reading “Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification.” Edited by Donald L. Alexander, this book contains thoughtful essays on the subject of sanctification from authors such as Gerhard Forde, Sinclair Ferguson, Laurence Wood, Russell Spittler and E. Glenn Hinson, each of them writing from a different perspective on how believers are changed by the Holy Spirit as they progress in their walk with Christ. Required reading for a class I am taking, I found myself getting riled up as I studied passages on the Wesleyan view of sanctification. I posted something of a rant to the Covenant Seminary server as a result, and judging by the responses of my classmates, I hit a nerve with many of them. The overly-simplified idea is this: Wesley, while clearly an undeniably positive and influential Christian in his day, seemed to believe that the mature Christian can come to place in this life where he or she does not struggle with indwelling sin. My response to this idea:

I found myself getting progressively more irritated at the Wesleyan idea that there is anything that even shows up in the same ZIP code as sinless perfection in this lifetime. One of my current life verses, by necessity, is Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” In particular, I have found that people’s sick hearts are desperate to misread Scripture such that they are justified in their own eyes, and it seems to me that the Wesleyan view panders to that worst part of human behavior, namely the desire to be “fully right” and then quite naturally proceed to the logical next step, succumbing to the sinful desire to judge others and find them “lacking” in ways that the Christian pursuing sinless perfection is not.

I have not read much in the way of church history, but what I have read and learned from others has filled me with admiration for what both John and Charles Wesley accomplished for Jesus in their lifetimes. Unfortunately, Wesley unwisely invited wide misunderstanding when he over-exegeted 1 John 4:18 and other similar passages to imply that Christians themselves were somehow capable of achieving perfection this side of Heaven. The word “perfect” in the spiritual sense can only, ever be applied to Jesus Christ.

Other Christians may well argue this point, and really, I am 100% fine with that. My own limited understanding of Scripture leaves plenty of room for the pervasive depravity of the human heart, and I can see where my own views are likely to be wrong, or at least inadequate; I am willing to allow them to be adjusted such that they more fully conform to the Word, all of the teachings of Jesus – not just the ones I happen to like.

Getting back to C.S. Lewis, this actually gets at the heart of why I am grateful for the clear warnings given to Christians through The Screwtape Letters. I have really taken to heart how even the best of intentions and the finest teachings on Scripture can be twisted and bent by the utter lostness of mankind to bring us back to worship on the mountain of human pride, a place of closed-mindedness, arrogance and unteachability.

We need to take care, as we seek to understand – and then live out – God’s Word, to keep a close eye on our hearts, and to work to maintain a humble attitude toward our finite ability to understand the Infinite, being more than willing – eager, in fact! – to be shown where we have strayed away from the Truth.

Job 38:1-4 (ESV)
The Lord Answers Job
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.”

Psalm 139:1-6
Search Me, O God, and Know My Heart
To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.

1 Corinthians 10:12
Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

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