Cleaning House

Having been a Christian for over 14 years now, I can look back on my walk with Christ and clearly see how He has been oh-so-slowly sanding off the many, many rough edges, and so very patiently sanctifying me. I still have a few (OK, a lot of) rough edges, to be sure, but nowadays I can look back and see real progress, and I am greatly encouraged. Ironically, I have also found that as the “bigger sins” have been removed – like an addiction to alcohol and sexual rebellion, just to name a couple – it’s easier for some persistent “small sins” to creep back into my life and, perhaps because I’m too busy congratulating myself on how much progress “I’ve” made, I don’t tend to see them right away.

Unfortunately, church leaders and ministry workers can often seem to become their own worst enemies. The forces of darkness do a much better job of destroying God’s servants not by throwing obvious temptations into their paths – like hiring strippers to dance at their birthday parties – but instead by building up various influential Christians with fame and an unbroken string of successes. Sadly, the list of prominent Christians who have authentically desired to serve Jesus – only to find themselves overcome by greed, unstoppable pride or some other lust of the flesh – gets depressingly longer with every passing year. The very best way to barbecue a man, it turns out, may be to simply lavish a great deal of success and its resulting positive attention on that person. Left unchecked, even the most well-meaning praise can be corrupted to serve a growing sense of pride; Christian believers do well, I think, to give all credit to God when they are praised for anything.

I already see this dynamic at work in my own life, though obviously in far smaller ways.

Last summer, I began facilitating a men’s redemption group, focusing on Ed Welch’s “Crossroads” series as our curriculum. No big deal, really, “just” an 11-week program that would provide an opportunity to meet up with some other guys, share our stories and (hopefully) be able to encourage one another as we all sought to throw off some lifelong habits and hang-ups that had done a fairly impressive job of screwing up our lives and separating us from God. As someone who has been, by God’s grace, drug- and alcohol-free since July of 1997, I made a serious mistake by thinking that I was merely facilitating a redemption group in the hope of helping others…you know, since “I was doing so great” and all. In other words, I was there solely to help these guys, not that I necessarily had anything more in myself that needed to be revealed and dealt with.

Foolish pride!

My moment of clarity came when I was sitting at my desk at home, typing out an encouraging e-mail, exhorting the guys in the group to recommit themselves to discipline and strength. In God’s infinite mercy, I think it was right about then that I happened to look down into the trash can next to my desk and glimpse approximately 23,000 empty Starburst wrappers. And as if that’s not bad enough (and it is), I had been fishing those delightful candies out of the clearly-marked plastic bin which indicated that these tempting treats had been specifically purchased and set aside for the participants in the church’s DivorceCare class. A rare foray onto the bathroom scale the next morning confirmed my worst of fears. “Great! Now I’m a hypocritical thief…and a fat hypocritical thief to boot!” When I came face-to-face with a trash can full of Starburst wrappers, I realized that I was failing the guys in the group by, on the one hand, encouraging them to give up their vices while, on the other, ransacking another ministry in service of a seemingly-insatiable sugar buzz.

The clear message? We Christians need to pay close attention to those little pockets of our lives that stubbornly resist examination, are drowned out by excuses or are minimized or rationalized away as “not that big a deal.”

Enemies without, and enemies within! But lest you get the idea that I am now walking through life in a constant state of anxiety, panicking that I might miss some small evidence of sin that will have major negative repercussions in my own life, or that perhaps I’m preparing to dive headlong into a cesspool of pride, I have instead chosen to learn from other Christian leaders how very dangerous it can be to enter into the service of the Lord, however small our part. It’s become very clear to me that, as difficult as it may be for all of us, if we want to serve others, we must do it always with a wary eye on our own hearts and a commitment to seek humility in all things. Nothing delights the enemy of our souls more, I am convinced, than when a faithful Christian allows God’s sanctifying work in their lives to create a prideful blindness that then allows them to do something particularly stupid, sinful or just plain ill-advised. Like, for example, eating a giant punch bowl of candy while simultaneously rebuking addicts to put down their own comforts of choice.

This week, I chose to take five days off work and get some things taken care of that desperately needed attention. In addition to schoolwork that had fallen by the wayside, I had some unmet responsibilities with my work at The Crossing, as well as several projects around the house that have been left undone for several years. Perhaps most embarrassingly, there is an unused room in our basement that has become a sadly-disorganized mess over the course of the past seven years. And when I say, “mess,” I am being charitable. I do not mean that there are “a few things out of place,” or that there are a “few piles of stuff” stacked here and there. No, what I mean is that a human being is no longer able to walk through this particular room without incurring injury, so stacked had it become with stuff that we clearly had not needed for seven years.

So why was I “hoarding” things in my basement? How exactly was this massive collection of you-name-it contributing to the cause of Christ in my hometown? The truth is, this room is in the back corner of the house, so it’s easy to ignore. Not being forced to “see” it regularly, it had become an absolutely beautiful picture of how our hearts – even as they are being sanctified in more obvious ways – can slowly begin to collect smaller sins that we will eventually trip over and not only humiliate ourselves but also grieve Christ.

This basement chaos becomes for me, then, a perfect picture of the corners of my heart that tend to collect junk, should I refuse to keep a vigilant eye on those areas of my life that cause me to stumble.

Ever since God was pleased to give me the Moment of Fat Thief Clarity, I have been repenting of much. True, eating candy (along with too much food) might not be placed in the same category of seriousness as nearly drinking myself to death, but it’s all sin. It’s all an attempt to grab as much comfort for myself as possible, and it’s all dishonoring to the faith that I profess. No, I am no longer drinking copious amounts of booze each and every day, nor am I smoking dope, nor allowing myself to watch sex-soaked movies or view inappropriate material on the Internet. Praise God for delivering me from all of that, and for keeping me “in the fold” these past several years! And praise God that, through His mercy, He also opened the door to the “basement storage room within” that I was intentionally leaving shut, and lovingly showed me that regardless of “scale,” I still have sinful attitudes that I need to clean up.

Since last summer, I have continued to be on what I call “Low Alert” for other examples of hypocrisy in my own walk. There is real wisdom to be had in being vigilant, in keeping watch for those heart attitudes that bring a bad name to the community of believers. Also, with God’s enabling, we can now dare to take on the piles of unused furniture, computer equipment, and hardware supplies that have bedeviled our basement ever since we moved into our present house back in February of 2005. As we do so, I am praying that God would continue to shine light on those dark corners of my heart that have persistently gathered dust and allowed “small sins” to accumulate unnoticed.

Lord knows I could never keep on top of this mess all on my own.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (ESV)
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

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