The Need for Continuous Choosing
Have you ever wished that you could simply decide, once and for all, that you would never sin again? Why couldn’t it be that easy? This section discusses why not: but also why we can still face the future with cheerful confidence.
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There will always be a vital element of choice. We have to choose whether or not we will look to Jesus for forgiveness, and whether or not we will focus our attention on going God’s way. God does not override our freewill; because, as has already been explained, true love is impossible without it. There is no ‘master switch’ you can throw that will make you exempt from temptation. Even Jesus was tempted – repeatedly. He experienced exhaustion, hunger, exasperation, deception, misunderstanding, abuse and betrayal: but always chose to respond in a way that pleased his Father, God.
When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time. (Luk 4:13)
Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” (Mar 6:31)
… Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” … The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (Joh 4:6-9)
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Mar 10:13 -14)
The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. (Mat 16:1)
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Mat 16:22-23)
“… I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.” “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” (Mat 17:16-17)
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Mat 19:3)
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? (Mat 22:15-18)
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. (Joh 8:3-6)
Notice, please, that feelings of extreme frustration, pain, anger, etc., are not sinful of themselves: it is what we do with them that matters.
“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. (Eph 4:26-27)
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Heb 4:15)
Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? (Joh 8:46)
But although we cannot claim a complete exemption we can avoid unnecessary temptations and overcome those that we cannot avoid. This is what Jesus did; and he taught us to do the same.
So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” (Joh 8:28-29)
Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. (Joh 5:19)
By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me. (Joh 5:30)
For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. (Joh 6:38)
For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.” (Joh 12:49-50)
We do this by cultivating a relationship with God that is sensitive to His will and reliant on His help.
“This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’ (Mat 6:9-13)
Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” (Luk 22:39-46)
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1Co 10:13)
This ongoing process of seeking to go where God leads, and do what he wants you to do, is described by St. Paul as ‘walking in (or by) the spirit’.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you won’t fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, that you may not do the things that you desire. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Gal 5:16-18)
Now the works of the flesh are obvious, which are: adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousies, outbursts of anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these; of which I forewarn you, even as I also forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:19-23)
Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts. If we live by the Spirit, let’s also walk by the Spirit. Let’s not become conceited, provoking one another, and envying one another. (Gal 5:24-26)
Notice also how this teaching by Paul harmonises with what we have already seen in the teaching of John; who describes this as walking ‘in the light’.
This is the message which we have heard from him and announce to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and don’t tell the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1Jn 1:5-9)
My little children, I write these things to you so that you may not sin. If anyone sins, we have a Counselor with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous. … This is how we know that we are in him: he who says he remains in him ought himself also to walk just like he walked. (1Jn 2:1,6)
The Bible portrays God as having always wanted mankind to have a personal relationship with Him.
Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. (Gen 2:19)
But we know instinctively that God is Holy; and our sense of guilt and shame makes us wary of getting too close
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” (Gen 3:8-10)
This is vividly illustrated when God appeared to the children of Israel after leading them out of Egypt ( Ex 20:18-21). Here is Moses’ description of what happened:
When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was ablaze with fire, all the leaders of your tribes and your elders came to me. And you said, “The LORD our God has shown us his glory and his majesty, and we have heard his voice from the fire. Today we have seen that a person can live even if God speaks with them. But now, why should we die? This great fire will consume us, and we will die if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer. For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? Go near and listen to all that the LORD our God says. Then tell us whatever the LORD our God tells you. We will listen and obey.” The LORD heard you when you spoke to me, and the LORD said to me, “I have heard what this people said to you. Everything they said was good. Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever! “Go, tell them to return to their tents. But you stay here with me so that I may give you all the commands, decrees and laws you are to teach them to follow in the land I am giving them to possess.” (Deu 5:23-31)
Convinced that they could not meet God’s standards, the people chose to avoid close contact with Him, and asked for a set of rules to live by instead. And that is how most people have been living ever since. Our sense of guilt keeps us at a distance from God; basing our lives upon a rule book (the ‘Law’) rather than seeking an intimate relationship with Him and depending on His ability to forgive our faults and to purify our lives and motives. But, by sending Jesus to first pay for our sins, and then coming to live within us by His Spirit, God has provided the way for our relationship to be fully restored – stronger and better than it ever was before!
For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its savior. Those who believe in the Son are not judged; but those who do not believe have already been judged, because they have not believed in God’s only Son. This is how the judgment works: the light has come into the world, but people love the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds are evil. Those who do evil things hate the light and will not come to the light, because they do not want their evil deeds to be shown up. But those who do what is true come to the light in order that the light may show that what they did was in obedience to God. (Joh 3:16-21, GNB)
But, “Old habits die hard,” as the saying goes; and even Christians can easily slip back into a rule-based way of living, by
- failing to cultivate a regular, daily relationship with God and sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit;
- adopting a judgemental attitude towards the faults of others;
- focussing on performance and outward measures of success, rather than heartfelt devotion; or
- settling for a less morally-demanding, ‘technical’ compliance with the strict rules of ‘the law’; whilst ignoring the higher moral demands that lie behind it.
As Christians, we can enjoy a life of freedom from the guilt of past failures, full of confidence in God’s unconditional forgiveness and acceptance of us. At the same time, we know that we still have much to learn; and serious trials may lie ahead. But our confidence in God outweighs any fear and we look to the future with joyful expectation. As Paul puts it…
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Php 3:7-14)