I came down with a horrible case of pneumonia last winter that eventually landed me in the emergency room. To this day, I have never been as sick as I felt on those two occasions. Usually, when something is wrong with our bodies, we know it. There’s no escaping the discomfort of the flu, an injury, or even the common cold. Our spiritual health, however, is much more difficult to diagnose. As long as life remains comfortable – or at least tolerable – it’s easy to assume we’re doing well when in fact, the sweetness of earthly pleasure is often the diet that renders us spiritual diabetics. What are some symptoms of this disease?
Withdrawal: Spiritual illness almost always takes the form of withdrawal from the covenant community (i.e. the church). It is simply impossible for a person to repent from sin and walk by faith if he or she is disconnected from the body of Christ. Just as a body part that has been cut off will shrivel up and die, the same is true for a person who makes gathered worship optional, who doesn’t connect with God’s people outside of the walls of the church on Sunday, and who doesn’t actively engage in the work of the kingdom. For any organism to grow, it must be intimately connected to the elements that bring it nourishment. For the Christian, those elements are the word, the sacraments, and prayer all in relationship to the covenant community. To check out of that community is to introduce disease into your soul.
Bitterness: The person who holds a grudge against someone is drinking poison and hoping their nemesis dies. Not only does bitterness not achieve its intended purpose, it brings about the opposite; decay of your own soul. Christians who cannot let go of their anger are, quite frankly, not “in step with the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). They don’t get that it was “while we were yet sinners” that Christ died for us; that Jesus didn’t wait for us to get it together before he atoned for our sin, but that he did so despite how obstinate we were.
Forgiveness means that we grieve the loss of the ideal relationship or circumstance and we let go of that which has hurt us. If that’s not happening, then a crucial part of the gospel is missing in our lives and we’re living with embittered souls rather than in communion with God and his people.
Self-reliance: Spiritually sick people have very little appetite for gathered worship and the spiritual disciplines. They don’t long to sit under the word, to read it, to bring their souls to God in prayer, because they don’t see their need. In a world where we have all of our needs met and most of our wants, the insidious temptation toward faith in our skills and resources is particularly acute.
Why bother with a God who is going to make demands upon you when your life is just fine without him? This is why Jesus says that it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:24). It’s not only true for a person who is financially well to do, but also for one who is rich in skill, intellect, friendship, family, or anything else life has to offer. It’s much more natural to worship the gift – and to believe we earned it – than to worship the Giver.
Moralism: The great Southern author, Flannery O’Conner, once wrote that “the way to avoid Jesus is to avoid sin.” In other words, placing more faith in our righteousness than we do in Christ’s avoids him all together because our faith is in ourselves and not in him. Because the righteousness of Christ leads us to a life of holiness doesn’t mean that our assurance is based on our faithfulness to him. Our assurance is based on Christ’s faithfulness to his Father. How do you know when you’ve bowed to the god of moralism?
Think about how you react when you fail. When you fail as a spouse, a parent, or just as an individual in the world, do you despair? Or do you cling to the hope of the gospel which leads to repentance and faith? The former is a sign of spiritual illness; the later a sign of health.
Hedonism: Rolling Stones Theology (“I’m free to do what I want any ol’ time.”) is the doctrine of our age. The autonomous assertion that we don’t need the weekly fellowship of God’s people and the means of grace as much as we need the beach and we don’t need to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 1:12) as much as we need to please our nerve endings - all because we’re under grace - is to misunderstand grace all together.
Grace always compels obedience. “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17). Yes, we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, but faith is never alone. The fruit of faith is obedience. It means following Christ together with his people.
There is nothing more beautiful than when a person moves from withdrawal from God and his people to engagement, from bitterness to contentment, from self-reliance to faith in Christ, from moralism to meekness, and from hedonism to holiness. May we prayerfully and earnestly desire these things for ourselves, our children, and the church.