Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: self denial

She never gives up

Saturday afternoon Bianca Andreescu won the U.S. Open women’s tennis tournament. She is 19 and the first Canadian ever to win a grand slam tennis tournament.

A comment made by one of her opponents has stuck in my mind: “She never gives up.” In several matches she seemed to be faltering, on the verge of being defeated. Then Ms. Andreescu would re-focus, buckle down and do what she needed to do to win the match.

The New Testament writers, especially the apostle Paul, often drew analogies from the popular sports of their day. Here, in abbreviated form, is the way Adam Clarke explained the last four verses of the ninth chapter of 1 Corinthians:

They which run in a race run all – The apostle alludes to the athletic exercises in the games celebrated every fifth year on the isthmus which joins the Peloponnesus, or Morea, to the main land; and were thence termed the Isthmian games. The exercises were running, wrestling, boxing, throwing the discus, etc.; to the three first of these the apostle especially alludes.

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Image by jacqueline macou from Pixabay

But one receiveth the prize? – The apostle places the Christian race in contrast to the Isthmian games; in them, only one received the prize, though all ran; in this, if all run, all will receive the prize; therefore he says, So run that ye may obtain. Be as much in earnest to get to heaven as others are to gain their prize; and, although only one of them can win, all of you may obtain.

Is temperate in all things – All those who contended in these exercises went through a long state and series of painful preparations. To this exact discipline Epictetus refers, cap. 35:“Do you wish to gain the prize at the Olympic games? – Consider the requisite preparations and the consequences: you must observe a strict regimen; must live on food which you dislike; you must abstain from all delicacies; must exercise yourself at the necessary and prescribed times both in heat and in cold; you must drink nothing cooling; take no wine as formerly; in a word, you must put yourself under the directions of a pugilist, as you would under those of a physician, and afterwards enter the lists. Here you may get your arm broken, your foot put out of joint, be obliged to swallow mouthfuls of dust, to receive many stripes, and after all be conquered.” Thus we find that these suffered much hardships in order to conquer, and yet were uncertain of the victory.

They do it to obtain a corruptible crown – The crown won by the victor in the Olympian games was made of the wild olive; in the Pythian games of laurel; in the Nemean games of parsley; and in the Isthmian games of the pine. These were all corruptible, for they began to wither as soon as they were separated from the trees, or plucked out of the earth. In opposition to these, the apostle says, he contended for an incorruptible crown, the heavenly inheritance. He sought not worldly honour; but that honour which comes from God.

I therefore so run, not as uncertainly – In the foot-course in those games, how many soever ran, only one could have the prize, however strenuously they might exert themselves; therefore, all ran uncertainly; but it was different in the Christian course, if every one ran as he ought, each would receive the prize.

Not as one that beateth the air – Pugilists were said to beat the air when they had to contend with a nimble adversary, who, by running from side to side, stooping, and various contortions of the body, eluded the blows of his antagonist; who spent his strength on the air, frequently missing his aim, and sometimes overturning himself in attempting to hit his adversary, when this, by his agility, had been able to elude the blow. We have an example of this in Virgil’s account of the boxing match between Entellus and Dares, so well told Aeneid. v., ver. 426, etc., and which will give us a proper view of the subject to which the apostle alludes: viz. boxing at the Isthmian games.

To such a combat as this the apostle most manifestly alludes: and in the above description the reader will see the full force and meaning of the words, So fight I, not as one that beateth the air – I have a real and a deadly foe; and as I fight not only for my honour but for my life, I aim every blow well, and do execution with each.

But I keep under my body, etc. – This is an allusion, not only to boxers, but also to wrestlers in the same games, as we learn from the word υʽπωπιαζω, which signifies to hit in the eyes; and δουλαγωγω, which signifies to trip, and give the antagonist a fall, and then keep him down when he was down, and having obliged him to acknowledge himself conquered, make him a slave. The apostle considers his body as an enemy with which he must contend; he must mortify it by self-denial, abstinence, and severe labour; it must be the slave of his soul, and not the soul the slave of the body, which in all unregenerate men is the case.

Lest – having preached to others – The word which we translate having preached, refers to the office of the herald at these games, whose business it was to proclaim the conditions of the games, display the prizes, exhort the combatants, excite the emulation of those who were to contend, declare the terms of each contest, pronounce the name of the victors, and put the crown on their heads.

Should be a castaway – The word signifies such a person as judges of the games reject as not having deserved the prize. So Paul himself might be rejected by the great Judge; and to prevent this, he ran, he contended, he denied himself, and brought his body into subjection to his spirit, and had his spirit governed by the Spirit of God. Had this heavenly man lived in our days, he would by a certain class of people have been deemed a legalist; a people who widely differ from the practice of the apostle, for they are conformed to the world, and they feed themselves without fear.

This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting

Jesus came down from the mountain where He had been transfigured and found a great crowd gathered around his disciples and a demon-possessed boy. At the end of the account, after casting the demon out of the child, He told His disciples “Howbeit, this kind cometh not out but by prayer and fasting.”

The disciples had been perplexed. Jesus had earlier sent them out and given them power to heal diseases and cast out demons. When the father of this boy brought him to them, they were confident that they had done this sort of thing before, they knew how to do it. This time it didn’t work.

No doubt the scribes were delighted at the discomfiture of the disciples. The crowd was probably disappointed at not being able to witness something spectacular. What went wrong?

This whole passage, and particularly Jesus’ words at the end, have often puzzled me. I think a glimmer of light has dawned in my mind. Jesus is not giving a recipe, or formula, for healing, such as: “six days of fasting and ten hours of prayer every day and no evil spirit can stand against you.” He was warning against self-confidence or any kind of idea that “I can do this.”

Fasting is to deny ourself of that which sustains our natural strength. It will not do to fast in order to have strength; we must rather relinquish any claim to have strength of our own. Prayer then will connect us to the power that comes of God.

We humans are no match for the spirits who populate the unseen realm of darkness which is all around us. Physical fasting can help take our mind off our natural appetites, but does not, of itself, give us power over the forces of darkness. It appears that fasting gives some people a sense of spiritual superiority, which leaves then defenceless against temptations to pride and self-exaltation.

What I think Jesus means here by fasting is to deny all pride, ambition and desire to be praised, and to trust only in Him to give us power to withstand temptations. The result may not be dramatically apparent to others, or ego-building, but it does promise a life of spiritual victory.

Slaying the beast within

A year and a half ago, a young man who had served a sentence for armed robbery appeared in court to explain that he had learned his lesson. He said that he had learned that he needed to stop and think before doing something and consider the consequences. “I have learned to tell the difference between good and evil,” he testified.

Two weeks ago, the fiancee of this young man, mother of his two young children, went missing. A few days later a sack containing her dismembered body was found under a bridge. The young man who had supposedly learned to tell the difference between good and evil has been charged with murder. What happened?

There is a beast within each one of us that cannot learn, cannot be tamed. Most often it shows itself in words, but sometimes far more horrible things happen. James writes:

And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: but the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.  James 3:6-10

The apostle Paul wrote: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18). No  anger management course, no behaviour modification therapy, can ever fully master this beast. It has to die.

That is why Jesus said: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). That is, if we are to be followers of Jesus Christ, we must daily renounce the inclinations of that inner beast and nail it to the cross. Paul is saying the same thing when he writes: “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Romans 8:13). “Mortify” is used here in its original French sense of “make to die.”

The new birth is the result of the death of this inner beast, to be replaced by a new life, one that is not animated, or in harmony with, the forces of hell, but one that is animated by the Holy Spirit and in harmony with the powers of heaven. Here are the words of Paul again: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

The beast within does not want to stay dead. That is why Jesus spoke of the daily need for self-denial and cross bearing. That does not mean a daily new birth; the Holy Spirit does not leave us so easily. A Christian may do and say things at times that indicate the influence of the inner beast; if someone else has been hurt the Holy Spirit will prompt him to make amends for the hurt he has caused. No one should ever have to wonder who has control of the life of someone who calls himself a Christian.

Is Jesus’ “ground crew” the real problem?

Some folks have been heard to say that they love the Lord, but the don’t have much use for His ground crew. I confess that my first impulse is to be sympathetic to their point of view, having encountered a number of questionable representatives of that group. That impulse is tempered by the realization that I might be someone that such people wouldn’t want to be part of the ground crew.

What kind of a ground crew would gain the confidence of those people? To hear them tell it, they want to be introduced to a warm, friendly Jesus who will be their buddy and tell them the way they life is just fine with Him and everything is going to be all right in the end. Some preachers come pretty close to offering such a Jesus, but most everyone knows this Jesus is an imposter.There appears to be an irreconcilable gulf between the desire to live a meaningless life and the desire to be accepted by a meaningful Jesus.

Jesus Himself is the real problem. He says very divisive things like: ” I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me;” “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple;” ” If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”

He demands our full, unconditional allegiance. He says that His way is the only way to find peace and happiness. That’s pretty exclusive thinking; there are all kinds of religions out there that promise peace, fulfilment, happiness. Don’t they all promise the same thing? Isn’t one just as good as another?

The thing that some people eventually figure out is that Jesus is the only one who can deliver what He promises. All the other ways leave people feeling alienated, angry, fearful, worthless. When we follow Jesus we learn that we are loved, that we are valuable in the sight of God. And we learn to love other people in a way we never could before.

That last point is tremendously important. Someone who claims to know Jesus but can’t get along with others, doesn’t really know Jesus. I can imagine that Jesus and I are in complete agreement and that anyone that does not see things as we see them is an enemy. That is deception; that’s just not how Christian faith works. ” If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

Our job, if we are part of Jesus’ “ground crew”, is not to describe Jesus as we imagine Him to be, but to introduce people to the real Jesus. The more we become like Him, the better we should be at that introduction.

Are we passive Christians or active Christians?

If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.

-C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

How to catch a monkey

If you want to capture a monkey you first need to get a wooden box and fill it about half full with stones. Then cut a hole in the lid just large enough for a monkey to get his hand through, throw some peanuts on top of the stones and securely fasten the lid to the box. The only other thing you need is a rope strong enough that the monkey cannot break it. Now you take the rope, hide behind a tree and wait for a monkey to come along.

When the monkey appears he will be tempted by the smell of the peanuts, he will go closer and closer to the box, look around for any sign of danger, then thrust his hand into the box and grab the peanuts. When he tries to pull his hand back out he cannot because now it is a fist full of peanuts. He will try and try to get his hand out, but he will not let go of those peanuts.

That’s all it takes to trap a monkey. Now all you have to do is walk up behind him, put the rope around his waist and tie it. Then you can break the lid to set his hand free and let him eat the peanuts.

Or so the story goes. I do not have any first hand experience with this method, never having been in a land where monkeys roam and not having any desire to catch a monkey if I had been.

However, I’m afraid that too often I have been that monkey. Satan laid a trap for me, I grabbed what was offered and then I was trapped. Why is it so hard to let go of those things that we know have led us into a trap? Is there anything in this world that is that important?

I’ve got to Start Somewhere

A few years ago I picked up a book entitled Start Somewhere: Losing What’s Weighing You Down Fom The Inside Out*. Written by Calvin Nowell, a Christian songwriter and recording artist, it is the story of how he got to be a young guy weighing 450 pounds, with a 60 inch waist, and how he found a way to  lose 215 of those pounds. I found the book inspiring, but not inspiring enough to follow his lead.

Last Sunday I decided that time had come. I wasn’t feeling twinges in my heart like Calvin felt, but I seem to get out of breath too easily,  it is difficult to bend in the middle or to get up from a kneeling position. I am much shorter than Calvin’s six feet and four inches, but 210 pounds is way to much for my frame. I weighed 150 when I was married almost 44 years ago. Is it unreasonable to think that I might eventually get back to that size?

Calvin does not offer a marvelous nutrition plan or exercise advice. His advice is simply to move more and eat less. That basically comes down to self-denial. And self-denial is the missing ingredient in about every other weight loss book on the market. Simply because denying our appetites, which have become powerful habits, is so difficult.

Here is one little quote from the book:

“If you’re on the edge of your seat waiting to see what amazing new miracle weight-loss fad I followed, you’re going to be disappointed. I lost my weight through old-fashioned diet and exercise. I made small changes in my behaviour that became habits (my emphasis).

I believe that last sentence is the key, Many weight loss plans will help you take off weight, but the loss is temporary, because you have not formed new habits that will last longer than the time it takes to lose the weight. Old habits have to be broken, new habits formed that will become just as much a part of your character as the old ones. That is where self denial comes in.

Anyway, I have begun by cutting out snacks between meals and dessert at supper. That has been a shock to my system and I was feeling it yesterday. Summer is coming and it won’t be hard to be more physically active. The test of my desire to keep up that level of physical activity will come next winter.

My goal is to lose ten pounds in the first thirty days, another ten in the following sixty days. I know the first few pounds will come off more quickly and it will take a dedication to my goal to keep going until the new habits are deeply ingrained.

Wish me well. Pray for me.

* Start Somewhere: Losing What’s Weighing You Down Fom The Inside Out, © 2009 by Calvin Nowell, published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Twelve Foot Falls

We were driving through Wisconsin, on our way from Ontario to Saskatchewan and planning to stop at friends for supper and night. There was a little sign beside the road saying “Twelve Foot Falls” with an arrow indicating the direction. On a spur of the moment impulse I pulled off onto the side road. For a few miles it was a fairly decent gravel road, then it dwindled to a trail through the bush and finally ended. There in front of us was “Twelve Foot Falls,” a creek bubbling down in steps over the rocks. I’m sure that it did drop a total of twelve feet, two feet at a time. We could walk across on the rocks.

That little side trip has been a family joke ever since. Dad goes right by all the really interesting places along the way because we don’t have time to stop, then takes this long winding side trip to Twelve Foot Falls.

Solomon saw this tendency in mankind and commented: “Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). Substitute simple for upright, as one version does, and detours for inventions as in the French Louis Segond translation, and you have the basis for my thoughts. God has a simple, straightforward way for us in life, but we often take detours and go off on little side trips.

Some folks insist that baptism has to be by immersion. This opens up a whole raft of options. Does the baptismal candidate go into the water backwards or forwards? Is it enough to go under the water once, or does it have to be three times — once each for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Can the baptism take place indoors, or must it be outdoors? If outdoors, will a lake do, or does it have to be running water? This is a fruitful field for study and discussion and may possibly lead to forgetting why one wanted to be baptized in the first place.

Others get all wrapped up in investigating what the Bible says about the end times. There are lots of authors and speakers eager to help us understand this subject. Unfortunately, there are just about as many points of view as there are authors and speakers. We can get so wrapped up in trying to sort this all out that we forget the part about being ready when Jesus does return.

This is just scratching the surface, there are many other topics that occupy the minds of folks who are really in earnest about understanding the Christian way. All of these things lead us off on interesting detours which may, or may not, eventually reconnect with the narrow way that leads to the celestial city.

Yet the way is simple and straightforward. Jesus said that all we really need to do is “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

However, these two commandments require self-denial on our part. The detours do not. That is the appeal of the detours; and their danger.

The inconvenient Jesus

Jesus was the enemy of formalism and legalism, the one who castigated the religious leaders of His day for their hypocrisy.  He was the friend of the poor, the oppressed, the outcasts and the sinners.  We like to believe that no matter what others may think of us, Jesus is our unconditional friend.

That isn’t far off the mark, but when we go to a funeral and hear that our dear departed uncle is now in heaven, all his sorrows are over, while we never noticed that our dear departed took any interest in preparing for heaven, then we begin to wonder if the picture has not gotten skewed.

Jesus’ own words are difficult (impossible) to reconcile with the picture of a Jesus who welcomes everyone to heaven, even if they never showed any desire to go there.  Things like: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” and: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me,”and even:  “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus had strange ideas of what it meant to be blessed: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.”

The meaning of these verses is that if heaven is not more important to us than all our earthly pride and possessions, even our own family, we are never going to make it there.  These, and many other of the hard sayings of Jesus are an inconvenient obstacle to those who wish to believe in a Jesus who will accept them on their own terms.

Things do not work that way in real life; we must accept Jesus on His terms.  That includes repentance, self-denial and for many people may include rejection by friends and family and even physical danger, persecution and death.

There was no easy way out for Jesus when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour” and: “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”

He suffered the agony of the cross, blood poured from His wounds and His side.  He did not go through this to make life on earth easier for us, but to make eternal life in heaven possible for us.  Our way to heaven must also involve submission to the will of the Father, a willingness to forsake the thoughts and things that are highly esteemed by those around us and to bear the shame and reproach of the cross.

There are no short cuts, no easier pathway for someone who claims a special illumination.  Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and His way is the narrow way.  If we want to be in heaven with Jesus, that way is the only way.  This is still good news.  Heaven will be worth it all and there will be no one there who did not really want to be there.

For without me ye can do nothing

O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps (Jeremiah 10:23).

Okay, if we don’t have it in us to conduct our lives in a way that will lead us to our ultimate destination of heaven, or even to live like a genuine child of God in the present, why do some Christians talk like they do have that ability?

I am thinking specifically of those who talk of self-discipline as though it was an essential quality of Christian life.  Funny that the Bible never speaks of such a thing.  Or maybe it’s not so funny.  What we are actually saying when we talk of self-discipline is that I can discipline my self by myself and my self takes the credit for it.  To which the apostle Paul says:

This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?  Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?  (Galatians 3:2-3)

If we live a consistent and orderly Christian life and then take credit to ourselves by claiming it is due to self-discipline, aren’t we contradicting the words of Jesus?

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing (John 15:5).

Remarkably, when we speak often of self-discipline, we are also apt to speak often of humility.  Are we perhaps mistaking the appearance of humility for the real thing?  The apostle Paul has a warning for those who would choose an appearance of humility over the real thing:

Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind (Colossians 2:18).

And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me (Luke 9:23).

This is Jesus’ recipe for finding direction for our lives: self-denial, not self-discipline; cross bearing, not self-righteousness.  This is also the recipe for genuine humility, when we admit that we do not have it in us to direct our steps on the right pathway and depend on our Saviour to guide us each step of the way.

Many of those who speak of self-discipline are simply using the wrong word; their lives do give evidence of self-denial and cross bearing.  Yet there may be a snare here for the unwary.  Simply by substituting a word we may find ourselves tempted to take a little credit to ourselves, rather than thanking our Lord each day for the gift of His grace that has guided us through another day.

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