The Flesh Reasserts Itself

These past several weeks, I have noticed an increased tendency within my soul to be overly-irritated and easily annoyed. I say “increased,” because one of my greatest ongoing struggles is with anger and its various forms – irritation, frustration, a lack of patience, etc. I grew up an angry kid, and I can’t recall a time when those feelings didn’t regularly rise up in me. God has been slowly-but-graciously removing this sin from my life, but it’s clearly a process.

And so it is that I’ve noticed lately that the “process” has taken a step or two backward. It goes without saying, I have to think, that others have probably noticed this as well, particularly those with whom I have daily contact; certainly my family has. So let me just start off with that as an honest confession, a sincere blanket apology to anyone who has had the misfortune to struggle through an elevated level of my boorishness, as well as the assurance that I have resolved to continue fighting what is yet another in an ongoing series of battles against my own self-exalting heart, what the Apostle John rightly refers to as the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:15-17).

In this latest series of episodes, it hardly seemed to matter which external stimulus aroused the ungodly response. It could be – literally – just about anything or anyone that dared to occupy a space outside the bounds of what my heart had determined beforehand to be a satisfactory expression of a worthy moment of human life on this Earth. “The king has decreed it…so it must be! Woe unto the individual who fails to take heed!” Poor service at a restaurant, various individuals loosed upon the planet without a German-engineered sense of time, drivers foolishly obeying the posted speed limit on one-lane roads, you name it…any of these exceedingly-minor irritants might well trigger another episode of pride-fueled self-pity or (worse) letting the overflow of my heart pour out through my speech (James 3).

I am almost certainly the only Christian living inside of Boone County who sinfully allows himself to feel “put upon” by the burdens of others, who stubbornly refuses to extend the benefit of the doubt to another person suffering with one or more besetting sins, or who lets loose with a cutting remark when it would be better, perhaps, to offer a listening ear. So while I realize that I may be writing this more for my own benefit than anything else, I thought it a good idea to write down a few reminders that might help arrest the downward spiral next time out; I share them with you just in case you run across anyone else who – like me – needs help in this area.

Sin is clever, sin never plays fair, and sin will always seek out my greatest point of weakness. My latest struggle with elevated levels of irritation began a few months ago. At the time, I had been prescribed a medication widely used to relieve pain, especially neuropathic pain. Imagine my “delight” to find out – belatedly – that the medication is also widely known to cause irritability, hostility and impatience. Now, of course, I had something outside of myself to blame. In retrospect, though, it’s interesting to note how long I continued to take the medication after being advised of these side-effects, how little I did to counteract the symptoms, and how quickly I pointed to this drug as the lone agent of destruction. “It’s not my fault…it’s the pain medicine!” Right.

God is faithful…we are not. Even as I had only just begun to consider how much “more than usual” I was routinely getting annoyed and ticked off, a friend of mine very casually asked me to read Chapter 8 of “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. It’s interesting to note that this particular friend was not “calling me out” on anything, per se, but instead asking me to consider the chapter entitled The Great Sin as something that he and I might use to help him better assess his own spiritual needs. And, indeed, I do think that my friend is on the right track to seeing his own struggles in light of the sin of pride. But I was more than once awestruck at how faithful God was to use this teeny-tiny “coincidence” in my life to help me get my own boat turned around as well. Having read the book long ago, the import of passages such as these had long since worn off, and a gentle reminder from an infinitely-patient God was obviously in order:

“According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison; it was through Pride that the devil became the devil. Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”

Skipping a bit, Lewis continues to shred our all-too-human pride:

“The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But Pride always means enmity – it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.”

And as if these two passages are not quite bad enough, Lewis has still more to say:

“It is a terrible thing that the worst of all the vices can smuggle itself into the very centre of our religious life. But you can see why. The other, and less bad, vices come from the devil working on us through our animal nature. But this does not come through our animal nature at all. It comes direct from Hell. It is purely spiritual; consequently it is far more subtle and deadly. For the same reason, Pride can often be used to beat down the simpler vices. Teachers, in fact, often appeal to a boy’s Pride, or, as they call it, his self-respect, to make him behave decently: many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper, by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity – that is, by Pride. The devil laughs. He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride…”

As Lewis so rightly points out, no sooner have we set out to fix one spiritual problem than we are “inexplicably” besieged by two more. It’s not always that way, of course, but oftentimes I have found some of my more encouraging spiritual victories through Christ to be followed almost immediately by a spectacular failure of my own flesh. Just as Elijah followed up his most amazing demonstration of bravery against the 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:18-40) by running away from Jezebel like a frightened little school girl (1 Kings 19:1-5), I too find that I need to be even more vigilant over my own soul immediately following great moments in my walk with Christ.

I cannot even begin to say how grateful I am for the immense privilege of living within a Bible-believing and Christ-exalting community. Having lived apart from Jesus most of my adult life, I can say for sure that none of my friends from days gone by would ever have made a “random” suggestion that I pick up “Mere Christianity” and take a look unless we were both part of the same covenant community, equally committed to and interested in living lives consecrated to God and sanctified by the ongoing work of His Holy Spirit.

I am convinced that one of the biggest mistakes we can make as Christians is to downplay the role of the flesh in how we process information, relate (or not) to others, and make decisions. We do well, I think, to remind ourselves that our flesh is naturally hostile to God (Romans 8:5-8) and that we will quickly become lost outside of God’s Word and the sanctifying effects of living within Christian community. Be on guard. The verses below are useful, I think, not in getting us to think more about Satan, but in reminding us that we are fleshly creatures, prone to wandering away all on our own, let alone factoring in the malevolent intentions of our enemy.

So I stopped taking the neuropathic pain medication last week. Better (by far) to be in some sort of physical torment than to have something other than my own heart to blame for my sinful thoughts and attitudes.

Galatians 5:13-26
“Life in the Spirit”
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

James 4:7-8
Submit yourselves therefore 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.

2 Corinthians 2:10-11
Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.

2 Corinthians 11:3
But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.

Ephesians 4:26-27
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.

2 Timothy 2:24-26
And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

1 Peter 5:6-9
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.

Ephesians 6:10-12
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

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