What Those Inconsistencies Are Telling Us
I am trying to hurry my way along through a new book. This way of reading is part of the residual damage done by graduate studies. I dare not linger long on any book. I have 2,000 pages to complete by the end of the week. Read. Scan. Skip. Get the highlights and keep moving. I should be well into that next book by this afternoon.
Well, this book is not cooperating with that approach. There are too many sentences that are pregnant with implications. I have resolved to read this one slowly. Allow me to give you the context and then share one of those sentences with you.
The book is about the spiritual life of the Christian. He has discussed conversion, when God either comes crashing in uninvited, hence Joni Earekson Tada refers to God as the Divine Intruder, or finally makes his way through all our defensive barriers, slowly breaking us down over the years. Now the believer begins to settle in with a process of learning God’s ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. Early on, the believer is regularly confronted with the awareness that he should not behave this way, but should be act this other way (not irritable, but rather patient). He should not feel discouraged, but should find hope in the Lord. He should not give people a piece of his mind, but should hold his tongue. And so forth. As the months and years go by, many of the glaring contradictions between the old way and the new way begin to vanish. Now the need for change is more subtle and more difficult to detect. That is the context. Here is the sentence that stopped my most recent attempt to rapidly read through this book.
Then progressively we have to eliminate the inconsistencies of our behavior so that our religion is lived from the heart and not from external restraints.
External restraints are things outside of us that prompt us to behave as we should. For instance, when we are in a distinctly Christian setting (worship, Bible study, prayer meeting) our behavior is modified by peer pressure. We want others to think well of us, so we are well behaved. Those external restraints are not as strong when we are out of sight from our believing brothers and our authority figures. At home, behind closed doors, we let down the guard and our families see a different side of us. When we are alone, with no external restraints, we can be altogether different people than who we were at church. Here, we show our true colors. What we do when no one is watching often reveals the true desires of our hearts.
Sometimes, we see the inconsistencies and repent. Sometimes we don’t. Then, other people need to point them out. That is what the apostle James is doing in his letter to the church. Let’s listen in…
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.
James pointed out the incongruence. If we praise God and then turn right around and curse men, it calls into question the sincerity of our praise. We are to praise God with pure hearts. But if we are harboring bitterness and resentment that manifests itself in cursing our brothers and sisters then what kind of praise are we bringing to God? This was one of God’s complaints about his people.
They worship me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
The incompatibility of praise and cursing that James identified, as well as those conflicting patterns in our lives are very revealing. They show us that our Christian faith needs to develop more depth. The problem is not just on the outside. It is on the inside, in the heart. Christianity is not a behavioral modification program. When God planted new life in our hearts, he began a transformational process that demands and enables little changes each day, from the inside out. Often this life is described in the Bible as analogous to the development of a tree or a vine. The seed is planted and in time a little sapling surfaces. It is frail and not deeply rooted, but given more time, it drives deep roots into the ground and towers over all the shrubs and grasses beneath it. What makes it grow? There is a built-in mechanism that draws life from the soil and from the air around it that makes it keep growing and stretching upward.
So is it for the Christian. We are rooted and built up in Christ. He is the one who provides the nourishment that enables us to put off the old and put on the new. When we see an inconsistency in our lives we may put a great deal of effort into our behavior, but if we don’t drive our roots deeper into Christ we won’t be able to rid ourselves of that old way of thinking, that old way of behaving. Ultimately, it requires God’s work deep on the inside. As we confess and cry for help, he does what no man can do: he changes our hearts. As we quiet ourselves in his presence—praising and thanking him, pondering his greatness, meditating on his word— he makes the alterations. He modifies our attitudes. He changes our values. Significant and lasting changes can only be done by him. Oddly, some of those changes take place without our awareness. They come up from within us, sometimes surprising us. They surface though we’ve done nothing to conjure them up.
I was visiting an older man who has been walking many years with the Savior. He and his wife, like all couples, have their differences and the ability to get under each other’s skin. Recently, they have both been hospitalized and have been greatly weaken by illness and surgery. Though both are now at home, they are still fragile. We are all particularly prone to irritability and edginess in those situations. But that is not what they were experiencing. He told me…
All those things that would normally make us hard to live with seemed to just fall away. All the differences and disagreements that might produce arguments just disappeared. Our health has not been good, though that is improving, but our relationship has been great.
O Lord, do that deep work in our hearts. Change us from the inside out. Take those inconsistencies and iron them out. Make us anew. Remake us in your image and free us from these contradictions. Make us holy and then very happy by your blessed presence, through the grace of Christ. Amen