Respectable Sins 8: Anxiety and Frustration

Anxiety and frustration are certainly two key elements of our contemporary season. But we also experience such things in more mundane ways. Medical bills induce anxiety. A broken bicycle produces frustration. Slick roads make us anxious. Paper cuts are frustrating. How do we handle anxiety and frustration as Christians? With this chapter, I find myself for the first time in some disagreement with Jerry Bridges. He deals with anxiety and frustration as respectable sins. We should learn from him on these matters. At the same time, we should recognize that anxiety and frustration are a part of life in a fallen world and are sometimes outside of the category of moral brokenness. Anxiety can have psychological and physiological causes. Frustration is as old as the curse of Genesis 3. In a world which doesn’t function as it was created to do, we will find all things unsatisfactory and incomplete to some extent.

A key text concerning anxiety comes from Jesus in Matthew 6: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?…But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Have faith. The birds of the air and the lillies of the field do not worry, and we are far more valuable to God than such things. For Bridges, anxiety is sin because it is the opposite of the kind of deep trust in God which should mark the Christian life. To engage in anxiety about situations in our lives is to disbelieve that God is providentially in control of our lives: “…we tend to focus on the immediate causes of anxiety rather than remembering that those immediate causes are under the sovereign control of God.”

Frustration varies from anxiety because it “usually involves being upset or even angry at whatever or whoever is blocking our plans.” To battle this sin, Bridges turns to Psalm 139:16: “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” To say that our days are ordained is also to say that none of the occurrences of our days is a surprise to God; he is working out his purposes for our lives through all of the things we experience on a day-to-day basis. Living with faith means, in part, asking God “if there is something I need to learn, or if there is something I need to be attentive to. Sometimes God uses events that tempt us toward frustration to get our attention, or even to push us further in an area we need to grow in.”

I think that we need to exhibit balance in this teaching. On the one hand, we should be vigilant against sinful varieties of anxiety and frustration. If these things lead us to anger towards God or a failure of love towards neighbor, then we know that we have crossed the boundary. On the other hand, anxiety and frustration will follow us all to some extent through life in a fallen world. And for this kind of anxiety, the answer is not so much forgiveness from God as it is healing from God. The good news is that God can bring this healing into our lives, even as he can forgive us for our sinful anxiety and frustration.

Does it challenge you personally to conceive of anxiety and frustration as sin? Why or why not? Have you clearly experienced sinful forms of these common things? What helpful tips have you developed to help you when you are experiencing anxiety?

Respectable Sins 7: Ungodliness

The events of the last two weeks have made it more challenging to regularly post on my interactions with Jerry Bridges’s fine book Respectable Sins. But I will continue to do so, even as we move out of the Lenten season. In fact, we are just getting to the most practical chapters!

Is there a sin that lies at the root of all other sins? One of the classic answers to that question is pride. But Bridges wants us to consider another option: ungodliness. And what exactly is ungodliness? Bridges kicks things off with two important claims. First, all Christians are ungodly to some extent. Second, ungodliness is different than wickedness. Perfectly respectable people who do not engage in obviously vile things can still be ungodly in some ways. If this is true, then how is this ungodliness (present in all of us) manifested in our lives?

The first mark of ungodliness is to “live our daily lives with little or no thought of God.” We can wake up and have a “quiet time”, go to church on Sunday mornings, and tick a box that says we are practicing Christians and still basically move throughout life without thinking about God’s will or God’s glory. We do our jobs and raise our families and worry about our money in the exact same way as everyone else, with little specific thought about how our faith changes every element of our lives. The second mark of ungodliness is a “meager desire to develop an intimate relationship with God.” One cannot read the Psalms or the letters of Paul without a sense that the authors are passionate about being on intimate terms with God. Again, it is perfectly possible to live our Christian lives with little of the longing exhibited by someone like David: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” (Psalm 42:1-2).

It is with this understanding that Bridges builds his case that ungodliness is the sin before other sins. “To use a tree as an illustration, we can think of all our sins, big and small, growing out of the trunk of pride. But that which sustains the life of the tree is the root system, in this case the root of ungodliness. It is ungodliness that ultimately gives life to our more visible sins.”

How do we battle this sin? First, we must intentionally train ourselves to take it on (in the power of the Holy Spirit, of course). Second, “…it will help to identify specific areas of life where [we] tend to live without regard to God.” Finally, we must fill our minds up with Scripture verses which teaches us about godliness. For example, we could meditate on Colossians 3:23 (“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men…”) or Psalm 27:4 (“One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple”). Such texts ground us in the abiding presence of God and in the intimate pursuit of God.

What areas in your life demonstrate this basic sin of ungodliness? In what situations do you repeatedly fail to consider the Lord’s presence or will? Are you comfortable with the language of intimacy with God? Why or why not?

Respectable Sins 6: Directions for Dealing with Sins

God, in his all-wise providence and love, has given us what is certainly an unforgettable Lenten season. The ideas and actions of wilderness, hunger, prayer, repentance, and longing have been brought into sharp focus. In our journey through Jerry Bridges’ Respectable Sins we have come to a very practical chapter laying out a general plan for dealing with all instances of sin in our lives. I will simply reproduce Bridges’ list with minimal commentary.

1. Address your sin in the context of the gospel. “As we struggle to put to death our subtle sins, we must keep in mind this twofold truth: Our sins are forgiven and we are accepted as righteous by God because of both the sinless life and sin-bearing death of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no greater motivation for dealing with sin in our lives than the realization of these two glorious truths of the gospel.”

2. Learn to rely on the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. The promise of the New Testament is that the Spirit is working within his people. So we must constantly seek to rely on him, even if we don’t always understand the way that the Spirit is working.

3. Recognize responsibility to take practical steps. To fight sin you must be prepared to engage in practical actions, while you trust in the power of the Spirit to change you.

4. Identify specific areas of “acceptable” sin. Humbly ask God to show you patterns and triggers.

5. Memorize verses of Scripture that address your specific sins. Memorizing the Bible is like storing up resources for an emergency.

6. Cultivate the practice of prayer over the sins you tolerate. Pray both in a disciplined and in a spontaneous manner.

7. Involve other, trusted people in your struggle. “We need the mutual vulnerability with and accountability to one another, as well as the praying for one another and encouraging one another, if we want to make progress in dealing with sin.”

What kinds of teaching have you received in the past concerning your battle with sin? Did you find it helpful? Do you believe that it is possible to grow in these areas of “respectable” sin? Why or why not?

Respectable Sins 5: The Power of the Holy Spirit

The last few days have been stressful. So much seems to have changed. Yet from a different perspective, nothing has changed. It is still the Lenten season. God is still God. You and I still need God’s grace. We believe the Bible, so we have always believed that suffering and struggle are part of the package in a post-Genesis 3 world. We fight battles without. We fight battles within.

And because we fight these battles within, we turn again to the guidance of Jerry Bridges. In our last study, we saw how Jesus dealt with the guilt of our sins through his atoning death. In chapter five, the focus turns toward the work of the Holy Spirit to free us from the power of sin in our lives. In this progressive process, there is work that we must do in cooperation with the Spirit – “I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). We also find, however, that the Holy Spirit works in us monergistically (or apart from our contributing energies) – “…work out your own salvation…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).

Bridges sums up this dynamic of our cooperation and God’s monergistic work with the phrase dependent responsibility: “There is a fundamental principle of the Christian life that I call the principle of dependent responsibility; that is, we are responsible before God to obey His Word, to put to death the sins in our lives, both the so-called acceptable sins and the obviously not acceptable ones. At the same time, we do not have the ability within ourselves to carry out this responsibility. We are in fact totally dependent upon the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. In this sense, we are both responsible and dependent.”

Bridges teaches us that there is mystery to how the Holy Spirit works within us. Nonetheless, we believe that he does because the Bible tells us that he does. And trusting in his power at work in us, we set about the process of recognizing and mortifying the respectable sins with which we struggle.

What do you find harder to accept: your dependency on the Holy Spirit or your responsibility to cooperate with him? Can you recall a time in your life when it was evident that the Spirit was helping you to put away some particular sin? When trying to change things “on your own,” have you been successful?

Respectable Sins 4: The Remedy for Sin

Having given us the bad news in chapter three, Jerry Bridges is ready to give us hope for our sorry condition. He begins the chapter by telling the story of John Newton. Once upon a time, Newton was a slave trader and a captain of a slave ship bringing Africans to the Americas. But the Lord rescued Newton and made him a minister. Newton renounced his old way of life but never forgot the depth or severity of his sin. The grim realities of slavery weighed on him for the rest of his life. Bridges shares a quote from near the end of Newton’s life: “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.” Herein lies the remedy for the malignancy of sin: Christ is a great Savior. This is the message that Bridges counsels us to apply every single day.

“The remedy for our sin, whether scandalous or acceptable, is the gospel in its widest scope. The gospel is actually a message; here I am using the word gospel as a shorthand expression for the entire work of Christ in His historic life, death, and resurrection for us, and His present work in us through His Holy Spirit. When I say the gospel in its widest scope, I am referring to the fact that Christ, in His work for us and in us, saves us not only from the penalty of sin but also from its dominion or reigning power in our lives.” This is good news: the work of Christ deals with both the guilt and power of sin.

Bridges reminds us that we must remember what Christ has done and preach it to ourselves habitually. “Using” the gospel by reminding ourselves of the work of Christ helps us in three ways:

  1. The first use is “to plow the ground of our hearts so that we can see our sin.” The gospel is only for sinners, and so preaching the gospel to ourselves is about getting rid of all the ways that we evade our sin.
  2. The second use is to free ourselves to face our sin openly. “To the extent that I grasp, in the depth of my being, this great truth of God’s forgiveness of my sin through Christ, I will be freed up to honestly and humbly face the particular manifestations of sin in my life.”
  3. The third use is to motivate us and energize us to deal with our sin. Our motivation to fight sin comes from our gratitude that Christ has already saved us and the encouragement that we receive from our loving Father.

Because Christ has already died for us and rose from the dead, the guilt of our sins – even those “respectable” sins with which we struggle – has already been dealt with. We are already adopted into God’s family in Christ. Next time, we will consider the Spirit’s work in us to free us from the power of sin.

Can you give an “elevator pitch” of the gospel message? What elements should be included? How have we as contemporary Christians sometimes missed the heart of the good news? In other words, what have we focused on which falls short of the Biblical presentation? What are the implications of the necessary elements for your life? Consider writing down your elevator pitch on a notecard and reading it every day.

Respectable Sins 3: The Malignancy of Sin

This is the third in a series of reflections on Jerry Bridges’ Respectable Sins.

According to Bridges, we should think of sin as we think of cancer. And lest you and I respond to this comparison as flippant, Bridges shares that he himself has experienced the ravages of cancer firsthand, losing his first wife during a year-long bout with the vile stuff. Like cancer, sin can spread inside of us undetected, and our own sins can even “metastasize” to those around us. The Puritans understood the dire realities of sin, and Bridges shares a series of book titles illustrating their opinion of sin:

The Sinfulness of Sin

The Mischief of Sin

The Anatomy of Secret Sins

The Evil of Evils or The Exceeding Sinfulness of Sin

I think you get the point. And the battle with sin is not just for the non-Christian. Bridges: “Now, here is the unvarnished truth that we need to lay to heart. Even though our hearts have been renewed, even though we have been freed from the absolute dominion of sin, even though God’s Holy Spirit dwells within our bodies, this principle of sin still lurks within us and wages war against our souls.” Paul calls the indwelling principle of sin working in us the flesh. The flesh is human personality under control of the sinful impulse. It is true that God gives us new hearts when we are born again. We are new creations, but the flesh persists in a manner analogous to muscle memory. For the Christian, the great problem is that we continue to live in ways inconsistent with our true identity in Christ. Sanctification is learning to live out of the reality of who we are in Jesus.

Why is sin so “sinful”? According to Bridges, any sin – even our “respectable” sins – is rebellion against the sovereign authority of God, despising of the law of God, and a grieving of the Holy Spirit. Ouch. But throughout this chapter, Bridges reminds us that hearing the bad news sets us up to receive the good news. He will explicate this good news in coming chapters.

Have you experienced the undetected “spread” of sin in your inner life? How did God get your attention? Have you experienced Christian community hurt by the “metastasizing” of sin among church members? How did healing and restoration occur in this context?

Respectable Sins 2: The Disappearance of Sin

This post is the second in a series of chapter summaries from Jerry Bridges’ Respectable Sins.

Bridges makes a bold claim: “The whole idea of sin has virtually disappeared from our culture.” Bridges published these words in 2007. He had yet to live to see the aftermath of the #metoo movement or the outrage mobs trolling social media for any sign of indiscretion against “inclusivity.” Has the heightened talk of morality in public actually made us a more moral people who are once again sensitive to the thing called sin? I would answer the question in the negative. Modern morality is often about performing for the sake of getting “in” with certain groups. It is undoubtably good to call out sexual abuse. But even our rightful calls for the end to such things are almost never followed up with a sexual ethic that has interest in doing what God wants us to do. Sin is still hard to talk about, especially in a world obsessed with therapeutic approaches to life.

But let us not bemoan the state of the culture. Bridges points out that sin has been forgotten in “conservative, evangelical churches.” In this case, the problem is one of deflection. We love to talk about the sins of the people out there (didn’t you see me doing it in the last paragraph?), but we don’t want to talk about the sins rampant within our own communities and our own hearts. Unfortunately, God is interested in our “respectable sins.” Bridges writes, “God’s law is seamless. The Bible speaks not of God’s laws, as if many of them, but of God’s law as a single whole.” This is why our “little” sins are dangerous. They break God’s seamless law just like the “big” sins. Bridges is quick to point out that different sins vary in levels of seriousness (isn’t murder much more consequential than a harsh word?). But this still shouldn’t stop us from seeing that “Sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4).

“Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Galatians 3:10). This verse reminds us of two things. First, our “respectable” sins matter to God. They deserve the curse of God. Second, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). Christ died so that we could be free of all sins, defined not according to cultural standards of sin but according to God’s righteous standard. “Good” Christian people need the cross, too.

What words do we often use to avoid saying the word “sin”? Have you ever had the experience of condemning the sins out in the world and then being humbled by God’s reminder of your own sins? If the Christian is reconciled to God through the work of Jesus, why are we so quick to try and cover up our sins? Do we really believe that even those things are forgiven?