The Lord God Almighty: Our Single Greatest Afterthought

Prior to my conversion, it seemed to me that a lot of Christians I encountered could easily be pigeonholed into what I would derisively classify as “enthusiasts of an odd form of spiritual masochism.” In sharp contrast to the overwhelming, 1970s-era cultural ethos of I’m OK, You’re OK – the cultural thought pattern I had been soaking in for most of my life – Bible-believing Christians stuck out like a sore thumb. Not only did they reject the first part of The Enlightened Equation of Thomas Harris – they took pains to let you know that they definitely were not OK – they had the unbridled gall to insist that the rest of us were not OK, either. (The nerve of these people…)

What often struck me as completely crazy, though (the very few times that I was exposed to other believers during my years as a skeptic), was how Christians could respond positively to exceedingly negative messages. The more painful the message, the more the pastor vilified his audience…the louder the shouts of “Amen!” (?) and the more women I would see reaching into their purses for a tissue to wipe their moistening eyes. (And somehow this was supposed to be a good thing?) Obviously, the “beat-em-up” sermonizing was not in evidence (nor accepted) at every Christian church, but this odd dynamic proved to be true often enough that it successfully captured my attention. What I dismissed back then as some sick form of masochism I now understand to have been mature believers being forced to contrast their own corrupt hearts with the unmerited love and perfect righteousness of a holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty (Isaiah 6:1-5).

I say all this to make it plain that I still have an aversion to being beaten up, spiritually or otherwise. Sure, I know it’s often “the Christian thing to do,” but I really don’t enjoy having my sins pointed out to me – even when I know the indictment is true – nor do I like to dwell on my own failures and shortcomings. I’ll gladly catalog someone else’s failures and shortcomings all day and all night, in triplicate with matching three-ring binders, my willingness being the clearest-possible demonstration of Matthew 7:3-5 that one could hope for…but anytime you want to talk to me about something hindering my relationship with Jesus, especially if you mention it more than once, my prideful heart wants to call you out for unnecessarily “rubbing my nose in it.”

These days, I now I have a matching aversion to reading anything written by Jerry Bridges. (Yes, I am kidding…sort of.)

Our Monday night Bible study group recently completed going through the book Respectable Sins. Both my wife and I have previously blogged about this book, so I won’t take up any further space recommending it as a must-read. You can dig deeper, if you want to, by reading her previous blog about this book and/or mine. To those prior meditations, I would just like to add that the phrase “rubbing my nose in it” came up more than once as our group worked its way through this book, and not just within the resentful silence of my own darkened heart; at least one other group member voiced this sentiment out loud. Still, we all had to admit that this response had more to say about our own lack of humility and “unteachableness” than it did about the author’s theology, content or structure. Simply stated, Jerry was telling all of us a lot of things that we did not much care to be told…whether it was true or not seemed almost secondary.

As of today, our Monday night group is moving on to Forgotten God by Francis Chan, so the time has come to step back a bit and decide what struck me most about Respectable Sins. After all, the human mind is only able to store a certain amount of information, so I know that with the passage of time I will likely forget much, perhaps most of what Bridges had to say. At best, I might hold on to a handful of topics and ideas as I read new authors and titles, am distracted by the demands of day-to-day living and continue my slide into old age. Unlike many other books, though, I already know what will almost certainly be Number One on my list of topics covered by Bridges, and that is his treatment of ungodliness, a term that has been forever redefined for me, a state of being that – contrary to what I used to think – requires nothing in the way of actively evil behavior.

I cannot possibly do a better job than Bridges explaining how the meaning of this term needs to be strongly revised in our everyday way of thinking, so I’ll just let him speak for himself for three paragraphs, taken from Chapter Seven (emphasis mine):

Contrary to what we normally think, ungodliness and wickedness are not the same. A person may be a nice, respectable citizen and still be an ungodly person. The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 1:18, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness.” Note that Paul distinguishes ungodliness from unrighteousness. Ungodliness describes an attitude toward God, while unrighteousness refers to sinful actions in thought, word, or deed. An atheist or avowed secularist is obviously an ungodly person, but so are a lot of morally decent people, even if they say they believe in God.

Ungodliness may be defined as living one’s everyday life with little or no thought of God, or of God’s will, or of God’s glory, or of one’s dependence on God. You can readily see, then, that someone can lead a respectable life and still be ungodly in the sense that God is essentially irrelevant in his or her life. We rub shoulders with such people every day in the course of our ordinary activities. They may be friendly, courteous, and helpful to other people, but God is not at all in their thoughts. They may even attend church for an hour or so each week but then live the remainder of the week as if God doesn’t exist. They are not wicked people, but they are ungodly.

Now, the sad fact is that many of us who are believers tend to live our daily lives with little or no thought of God. We may even read our Bibles and pray for a few minutes at the beginning of each day, but then we go out into the day’s activities and basically live as though God doesn’t exist. We seldom think of our dependence on God or our responsibility to Him. We might go for hours with no thought of God at all. In that sense, we are hardly different from our nice, decent, but unbelieving neighbor. God is not at all in his thoughts and is seldom in ours.

I suppose I was initially upset by this chapter precisely because Bridges did such an expert job of putting his thumb squarely on the tendency of our hearts to forget that we live in God’s universe, preferring instead to slip-slide and bungee-jump through our days without very much in the way of God-honoring gratitude. Yes, I can easily go hours and hours without one single, solitary thought about my Redeemer, even though in some other corner of my mind I know for certain that I cannot live one breath, one heartbeat apart from His mercy and grace. My theology tells me that Jesus Christ is more important to my survival than oxygen, and yet my flesh would (obviously) not do very well apart from access to breathable air. So why am I content to live apart from my Lord for anything longer than 30 seconds? Ungodliness.

Remember my aversion to taking a good beating? Honestly, I do not like to think of myself as “an ungodly person,” and my hunch is that you probably don’t, either. If you are at all like me, the temptation is strong to pillory Bridges for just those three paragraphs (let alone the rest of the book!) and/or dismiss him as “unrealistic” (or worse). That was certainly my initial response, but it has only taken a few weeks for the truth of this assessment to make itself known in my daily actions and attitudes. After just a few weeks of meditating on this section of his book, I now see what Bridges was talking about in the way I drive, the way I work, the way I talk to my wife and kids, the way I eat potato chips, etc. etc. etc. It’s not that I am being mean or hardhearted, necessarily; it’s just that I don’t often stop to think about the Lord before I open my mouth, make a purchase or enter appointments into my weekly planner.

You, too? Or maybe I’m all alone on this one?

Psalm 119:97-104 (ESV)
Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged,
for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way,
in order to keep your word.
I do not turn aside from your rules,
for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.

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