Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sin, Temptation, and Strength Through Repentance

Although I forget the exact timelime, I think it's fair to say that for approximately one month I've made a concerted effort to serve God and live in His favour. In that time, I've eliminated many vices from my life, have avoided many bad influences that might stifle my progress, and I've also made a few constructive steps toward healthy living and thinking. For me, the easier parts have been in the things I chose to give up. In contrast, I've perceived a few endeavours God wanted me to do, i.e. introduce into the scheme of my life, that have been much more difficult to follow through with. It's much harder to take a leap toward unknown good than to abandon something concretely bad. At least that's been the case for me.

As I was waking up this morning, I reflected on the past month. I thought about changes, freedoms, and complications I've experienced, and I also found myself remembering a few passages from Genesis that crept under my radar the first time I read them. I have asserted, and still believe, that sin is not just an evil, but it's a necessary one. Imagine, if you can bear with the simplicity and light sarcasm of the analogy, if life were a multiple choice test that read something like this:

Question 1: In order to achieve salvation, you must believe in and follow:
a) God and Jesus Christ
b) Jesus Christ and God
c) all of the above

Not much room in there for free will, is there?

No, we all have the option of choosing alternate, unfulfilling routes in life, and that they exist is the only scenario that allows for faith to be truly tested. One misconception I certainly had before speaking confidentially with many Christian role models is that the more you do for God, the easier it gets. I know a few pastors who have felt intense stress through their works, and this in spite of the fact that, even when they realize it or not, even when the job is thankless, most of them have done a tremendous amount of good in this world. Their effectiveness, just as it is with all Christians, hinges entirely on genuine faith in Jesus Christ and an honest approach thereof. Honesty is always a measure of authenticity.

On the subject of honesty, I want to reiterate that I have no idea about how true or incorrect any of my posts are, but I do make a very deliberate effort to keep open-minded when interpreting the gospel and making decisions in life. I sometimes struggle to hear God's voice, because there are conflicting ones, though subtle, that want me to stray, as I'm sure we've all experienced. When I read the Old Testament, His instructions seem so clear, so black and white, as if only those who deliberately scorn God could falter. Truly, if an angel showed up at my door and performed a miracle in front of me, I would be remiss to send him on his way until I'd performed all he asked. Not because I'm fickle and would respond to magic, but it's just such a declaration of God's love that He makes His guidance so impossible to distort with some of His servants. And, even though His instructions can seem absolutely absurd to those who receive them, even if it seems like God is willing us to sin or to do something we don't feel we have the strength to do, it's important to remember that, if we follow His path, we are not the source of our strength anyway:

Genesis 22: 1-2 "And it came to pass ... that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And [God] said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of."

Now, before we continue, a quick summary of important things we know by this point: 1) God has made an everlasting covenant with Abraham that promises a multitude of kingdoms in his seed; 2) Isaac, who is to be burned in offering, is the first of that lineage; 3) it is an established law that for Abraham to kill his son, who has not sinned in accordance with that punishment, would be sinful on Abraham's part.

Genesis 22: 3-12 "And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lift up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide you here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here I am, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here I am. And [the angel] said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou has not withheld thy son, thine only son from me."

The first time I read the above passages, I merely accepted them. It's kind of surreal for me, as I used to be tremendously judgmental toward scripture. My approach used to be spiteful; I was looking for something that could prove God's imperfection and/or the inauthenticity of the Word, which would have been conducive to my former (and false) independence from being accountable to Him. I was trying to live one life for me and balance it with a lackadaisical belief in the essence of God and an afterlife. And, as for Abraham, how easy would it be for him to reject this command, in spite of its clarity and his familiarity with God's voice, and especially given the oxymoronic nature of the request itself? Whether he envisioned it or not, Abraham declared that God would provide a lamb, and it turns out He would. But how easy would it have been to doubt in that?

This is what I mean about how the stronger we get spiritually, the stronger we must be to maintain a relationship with God. For me, giving up bad habits proved strangely easy, but as for venturing into new grounds outside my comfort zone, suddenly I felt the sting of fear and doubt, and I am working on those in my own terms. But if someone like Abraham, who had previously demonstrated so many acts of fear, can reform himself so much as to raise a hand against his son, I see a lot of promise in that. Of course, God intervened, as I trust He would should I ever be tested this strongly and adversely, but I really have no words to describe how impressive this seems to me, even though my old self would deem it utterly deceitful. And, as I lay in bed this morning, reflecting on things I've done this past month, and reflecting on these verses, here's what I concluded for myself: this form of temptation doesn't exist to distort God's image but to strengthen humanity.

Think about that for a second. God is omnipotent. That is, God is aware of everything that was and would be. God knew, beyond all doubt, that Abraham would submit to this request. So why would He ask him to jeopardize his son's life, the son whose lineage would descend all the way to Christ? Because faith and submission transcend ALL acts of good and evil. My mind is so inclined to judge the nature of what God wants that sometimes I forget it's Him doing the asking. If I live long enough, the chances only increase that God will request something of me that might create a mess, that might place me into a very uncomfortable situation. Not that I would try to wash my hands of any inherent responsibility, but I MUST trust God to clean it up for me. What if, in serving Him, I am to abandon friendships or securities? If so, it's crucial (and always will be) to remember that the same faith and the same God that asks us to do things on His behalf is the same faith and the same God that will carry us through these trials. That gets harder every day for me, but, without exception, when I follow through, so does He.

Believe me, I can study and try to rationalize and empathize with the situations of others, but it doesn't help me as much as I once thought. I'm still not as strong as Abraham demonstrates. I'm still the the version of Abraham that would want Sarah to identify herself as my sister. I'm still the James who will come across passages in other chapters and books and wonder at the logic, as if logic were a form of gospel. But, upon reflection, I have learned that in falling from God's grace means having nothing to cling to, that when God eventually embraces me again He holds onto me much tighter than before. I am always bestowed with a stronger faith in the good for having experienced new levels of pain, because the disparity between pain and joy has gotten so much wider.

I used to sin so casually and never repent any of it, and now I feel so lost and desolate and empty when God makes it clear that I've disappointed Him. It would almost be enough for me to regress into my old ways of being, but for the fact that every moment I spend on God's path illuminates and fulfills my life. If it were impossible not to achieve salvation, I would think Heaven no better than this planet, because life on earth, for those who have it, is a given. And, as I find myself tempted in newer, subtler ways, as I find my insecurities so turned against me because of my efforts to live well, I am learning just how damned this place truly is. All the pain we experience comes from earth, not from God's promises. No matter what sacrifices I have to make, and no matter how many attempts and struggles I have to go through, I will profess here again, in front of any eyes and minds that might ever read this, that I am utterly committed to living with God in Heaven, even though I will never be deserving of it. By no means am I strong enough, but I don't have to be. As I'm slowly starting to understand, it's not even possible to live perfectly. It's important to not only let God fight our battles, but to let Him choose which ones we should fight. My attempts to be perfect for Him, when they come from my own desires, are certain to fail.

This is why sin is necessary, and this is one thing that Satan will never understand about his agenda: when he fails to destroy us, God reaps in it. Conversely, when God tempts us, we must submit to the challenge. Can't say I always know the difference, but at least I have the greatest Ally in existence to help me through it all.

As for Abraham, I can only imagine the relief he felt when the angel stilled his hand. You might have noticed that even he struggled a bit with this. He and his men camped for three days before Abraham finally lifted his eyes to see the designated place, and I can't help but wonder if he was waiting for God to send further or different instructions, as I sometimes do when I can't wrap my head around something. It's the same stalling strategy I've used when I did understand and lacked the courage to follow through. Not only did Abraham stall, but he had to look upon Isaac for those same three days, suffering silently, knowing that Isaac might not live to succeed him. How hard would it be for any parent to lie to their child, saying that God would provide an offering but knowing that it was their very offspring that would be sacrificed? (In this sense, we must praise God's sacrifice, as He'd known for eternity what Christ would have to endure on our behalf.)

I guess the moral is to always be honest in the way we listen to God and conduct ourselves in life. Sadly, many of us, including me, try to convince ourselves that easier choices can yield happiness. If I had any such examples, I'd have included them herein. Trust me.


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