Calling Our Attention to Our “Small” Sins

It seems to me that inviting Jesus into your life can quite reasonably be compared to embarking upon a lifelong housecleaning. Or, as one of The Crossing pastors puts it so succinctly, “You’re never going to get your cap and gown.”

The Spirit of God has been absolutely relentless with me of late, faithfully answering recent prayers to the effect of, “Please reveal to me my sin in all of this.” Truth be told, I’d just as soon write a book review this week, or follow up on an item in the news. Something – anything! – other than confess and deal with yet another sin that is staring me right in the face. And yet, there’s humble, merciful Jesus, gently walking ahead of me with a shopping cart, tossing in item after item for me to examine in light of His revealed will in Scripture. “Yeah…maybe you need to take a closer look at this. What do you think?” I tell you, it’s simultaneously exhilarating (“God is at work within me!”) and maddening (“How could I possibly have missed this?”).

All that to say that yesterday I returned from four days of restful vacation in the more remote areas of southeast Missouri to a stack of roughly 150 new e-mails. Some of these were work-related while others were from friends. Some were spam. Whatever the details of the content, however, a fair number of them required a response on my part. It was in the midst of sifting through the mess that I became increasingly aware of how I was rather subjectively assigning an internal “level of importance” to the various issues that required my attention. I found myself carving up my to-do list based entirely on my mood and what (and who) I felt like dealing with at the moment.

The truth is that, some days, I would much rather focus on the black-and-white issues that my job presents me with than with the messiness of relationships. And some days I don’t “do everything to the glory of God” in my career when my heart is more interested in focusing on the people I meet through volunteer ministry at the church.

It should be said that the pursuit of wisdom plays a part in managing any project, of course, including assigning priority to various messages in an overstuffed e-mail account. We all do this on some level, and there is certainly nothing sinful in bringing order out of chaos. Quite the opposite in fact, as doing so allows us to image God Himself as we attempt to redeem the mundane, day-after-day tasks of life. What I am talking about, though, is a very subtle twist on our desire to redemptively manage chaos. Just like all really good lies (see Genesis 3:1), this one took an entirely valid truth and twisted it such that I found myself leaning too hard on the “Hey, I am just trying to manage my time” excuse.

Whether I am “waxing or waning,” turning left or turning right, the trouble I see in my heart is that I am not consistently using God’s wisdom as the compass by which I steer my efforts, but my own preferences and whimsical feelings about the task in front of me.

Upon further reflection, it occurred to me that I do this even in the brief moments I spend moving from one thing to another. I often walk through the hallways of work (and The Crossing) much the same way that I sift through e-mail. I tend to pick out the names and faces I know and enjoy interacting with while simultaneously “overlooking” folks that I find challenging and/or difficult to talk to. This is especially true when I am “pressed” in any way, such as having a full inbox or just being a few minutes late to wherever I am headed. In those slightly-more pressured moments, my “sifting mechanism” becomes even more relentless, tied almost entirely to whatever objective I have in mind at the time. Without anything resembling deliberate intent on my part, I find to my dismay that I have once again begun assigning value to others on purely pragmatic, self-focused criteria.

James, the half-brother of Jesus (and one of the first leaders of the Christian church to be martyred) speaks quite clearly to our “natural” desire to favor others and ignore the larger realities of operating within God’s economy:

James 2:1-13 (ESV, emphasis mine)
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Jesus, for His part, makes it abundantly clear that anyone who desires to follow Him should never get caught up in the desire to be favored or viewed with higher esteem than anyone else:

Matthew 23:1-8 (ESV)
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you – but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.

Mark 10:42-45 (ESV)
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Many reading this blog might view committing the sin of partiality as “no big deal” when contrasted with more serious sins such as adultery, theft and murder, and in some sense it is true that these latter sins do more in the way of palpable, long-term damage to others. A man is in much better shape, at least from a human point of view, if I choose to snub him than if I steal his wife and/or all of the money out of his bank accounts. The real question, though, is not the extent to which I have caused damage in the life of another person, though that is obviously relevant; the issue at hand is how my heart has almost imperceptibly begun to draw itself away from God’s will and moved ever-so-slowly in the direction of the kingdom I am building for myself. For the purpose of drawing us away from Christ with stealth, I suppose it’s possible that “small” sins are probably more effective than “large” ones.

Even though our hearts have been renewed, even though we have been freed from the absolute dominion of sin, even though God’s Holy Spirit dwells within our bodies, this principle of sin still lurks within us and wages war against our souls. We who are believers tend to evaluate our character and conduct relative to the moral culture in which we live. Since we usually live at a higher moral standard than society at large, it is easy for us to feel good about ourselves and to assume that God feels that way also. We fail to reckon with the reality of sin still dwelling within us.
Jerry Bridges, Respectable Sins

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