No one likes suffering, and generally, we try to avoid it. However, some suffering is unavoidable, as there are people and circumstances beyond our ability to influence. This is part of the human experience. But we are not neutral, and though suffering is inevitable, how we handle it is optional. If we greatly fear suffering, then we may be tempted to avoid it at all costs, and the weakening instinct of self-preservation might handicap us from maturing in life. God wants us to grow up and become mature Christians (1 Cor 14:20; Eph 4:11-14), and suffering is sometimes the vehicle He uses to help get us there.
As Christians, we realize some fear is rational and healthy, and this helps regulate our words and actions. Rational fear might also be labeled as healthy caution, which is a mark of wisdom. When driving on the highway, it’s good to be slightly cautious of other drivers, as this can help us avoid an accident. And, when entering a relationship with another person (i.e., friend, business partner, spouse, etc.), a little caution can save us much heartache. Solomon tells us, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov 13:20). Here, an ounce of prevention will save us from a pound of trouble.
Sometimes, we’re the source of our own suffering, as we make bad choices that affect us physically, socially, financially, etc. The wise will learn from their bad choices—even choices done in ignorance—and be better. And sometimes our mental and emotional distress is the product of irrational fears in which we manufacture imaginary negative situations that upset us. These are the mental dramas we construct in our thinking in which we are under attack by someone or something and feel helpless to stop the assault. These self-produced mental plays can include family, friends, coworkers, or anyone we think has the power to hurt us. But we have the power to redirect our thoughts, shut the story down, change the characters, or rewrite the script any time we want. Of course, this requires introspection and the discipline to manage our thoughts. As I’ve shared in other lessons, the stability of the Christian is often predicated on the biblical content and continuity of our thinking. It’s not only what we think, but we keep on thinking that provides mental and emotional equilibrium.
As a Christian, suffering can be viewed either as a liability or an asset. A liability is a burden, a drain on one’s life and resources. However, an asset is a benefit, something that adds value to life. If we’re able to frame life’s difficulties from the divine perspective, then we can thank God for the trials He sends our way, because we know He’s using them to humble us and shape us into the persons He wants us to be. How we view the trial determines whether it makes us bitter or better. But such an attitude is a discipline of the mind.
In Paul’s second letter to the Christians at Corinth, he recorded an incident in which he’d been caught up to heaven and “heard inexpressible words” (2 Cor 12:4). But Paul’s heavenly experience came with a price. The Lord knew Paul would become prideful because of the experience, so the Lord gave him a “thorn in the flesh” that was intended to cause him suffering and humility (2 Cor 12:7). Though Paul did not like the suffering, he eventually came to understand it was divinely purposeful. Twice he declared it was given “to keep me from exalting myself” (2 Cor 12:7). The word “exalt” translates the Greek verb ὑπεραίρω huperairo, which means “to have an undue sense of one’s self-importance, rise up, [or] exalt oneself.” It means one becomes prideful. Elsewhere in Scripture we learn “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling” (Prov 16:18), and that God “is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5b).
Paul asked God, on three occasions, to take the discomfort away (2 Cor 12:8). But God denied Paul’s request, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9a). God’s grace (χάρις charis) in this passage refers to His divine enablement to cope with a problem that He refused to remove. God’s grace was the strength necessary to cope with a problem that was greater than Paul’s ability to handle on his own. And God’s grace was in proportion to Paul’s weakness. The greater Paul’s weakness, the more grace God gave. This was a moment-by-moment grace, sufficient for Paul’s need.
As Christians, it’s legitimate that we ask God to remove our suffering; however, what He does not remove, He intends for us to deal with. This was true with Paul. God did not want to remove Paul’s discomfort because it served a purpose, and that was to keep him humble, to keep him close to the Lord. When Paul understood what God was accomplishing in him through the suffering, Paul chose to embrace it, knowing it came with divine help to shape him into a better person. Paul responded properly, saying, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor 12:9b). This was done by faith and not feelings. Furthermore, Paul said, “I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). The word content translates the Greek verb εὐδοκέω eudokeo, which means “to take pleasure or find satisfaction in something, be well pleased, [to] take delight.” Paul was not a victim of his suffering, as he chose to frame it with a healthy biblical attitude. This also fulfills the command to “Do all things without complaining” (Phil 2:14), and to “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; and in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th 5:16-18).
Elsewhere, Paul said, “we exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom 5:3-5). And James wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jam 1:2-4). Exulting in tribulations and counting it all joy when we encounter various trials is a discipline of the mind and will, in which “we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Warren Wiersbe states:
Our values determine our evaluations. If we value comfort more than character, then trials will upset us. If we value the material and physical more than the spiritual, we will not be able to “count it all joy.” If we live only for the present and forget the future, then trials will make us bitter, not better. Job had the right outlook when he said, “But He knows the way that I take: when He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). So, when trials come, immediately give thanks to the Lord and adopt a joyful attitude. Do not pretend; do not try self-hypnosis; simply look at trials through the eyes of faith. Outlook determines outcome; to end with joy, begin with joy.
Weakness is a blessing if it teaches us to look to God more and to ourselves less. And we cease to be the victim when we see suffering as divinely purposeful. This is not always easy, but the alternative to faith is fear, and fear brings mental slavery to the circumstances of life. By framing his weaknesses, insults, distresses, persecutions, and difficulties from the divine perspective, Paul was able to see them, not as a liability, but as an asset that worked for his benefit to help shape him into the person God wanted him to be. From God’s perspective, Paul’s Christian character was more important than his creaturely comforts. And Paul needed to have a character that was marked by humility, not pride.
It is true that God desires to bless us; and of course, we enjoy this. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b). But it’s also God’s will to advance us spiritually, and this means He will send us trials that are intended to burn away the dross of weak character and refine those golden qualities He wants to see in us. We trust that when God turns up the heat, that He also keeps His hand on the thermostat, regulating the temperature. And when we desire and pursue spiritual maturity as an important goal in our Christian life, then we can become content, pleased, and even find delight in the hardships, because we know God controls them and sends them our way for our good. And this is done by faith, and not feelings.
The testimony of Scripture is that God is righteous (Ps. 11:7; 129:4; 145:17; Lam. 1:18; John 17:25; 1 John 2:1). He is essentially righteous in character. It follows that since God is righteous, He will promote righteousness and approve of those who do. David writes of God, saying, “The LORD is righteous, He loves righteousness; the upright will behold His face” (Ps. 11:7). The verse speaks of what God is as well as what God loves. He is righteous and He loves righteousness. David here—and in Psalm 33:5—uses the Hebrew verb אָהֵב aheb to speak of the affection God has for righteousness and those who pursue it. The “upright” refers to those who conform to God’s character and commands, and to “behold His face” means one is welcome into His presence with favor (cf. Ps. 17:5; 140:13). In another place David states, “O LORD, who may abide in Your tent? Who may dwell on Your holy hill? 2 He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart” (Ps. 15:1-2). Solomon adds, “The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but He loves one who pursues righteousness” (Prov. 15:9), and “to do righteousness and justice is desired by the LORD more than sacrifice” (Prov. 21:3). Isaiah states, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Preserve justice and do righteousness, for My salvation is about to come and My righteousness to be revealed’” (Isa. 56:1), Jeremiah adds, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place’” (Jer. 22:3; Hos. 14:9; 10:12). Paul writes, “present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom. 6:13; cf. 6:19), “Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22), and Peter states, “and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24; cf. Eph. 4:24; 5:8-10; 1 Tim. 6:11; Tit. 2:11-12; Heb. 10:38).
God Works to Produce His Righteousness in the Believer
God is working to produce His righteousness in us from the moment of salvation onward. Paul writes, “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). God produces His righteousness in us to justify, sanctify, and ultimately glorify us. First, at the moment of salvation, God imputes His righteousness to us, and this is the basis for our justification. By imputed righteousness He is dealing with the guilt of our sin. Of the believer, Paul states, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21; cf. Rom. 5:17-18; 8:1; Phil. 3:9). Second, by crippling the sin nature He is dealing with the power of sin in our lives (Rom. 6:1-14; 8:2; 2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:5). Paul writes, “do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God “(Rom 6:13). Third, by removing our sin nature after death He is dealing with sin for eternity (Heb. 9:28; 1 Pet. 1:3-5; 1 John 3:2, 5). Paul writes, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; 21 who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:20-21), and Peter writes, “according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). Such a righteousness as that which will exist in the new heavens and earth means there will be no sin of any kind. God alone, without human aid, produces the first and third aspects of our salvation (i.e. our justification and glorification), and the believer simply benefits from His action. However, the second aspect of our salvation is not automatic (i.e. our sanctification), as God chooses to involve the believer to produce His righteousness. That is, there is a volitional aspect to a life of righteousness, as the believer must choose to obey God’s commands and rely on the His divine enablement to carry them out. God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing necessary to grow spiritually (Eph. 1:3), but we must lay hold of that provision and make good choices that conform to His will and character.
How to Achieve Experiential Righteousness
But how is the life of righteousness achieved? What is it that each believer must do in order to be the righteous person God expects? It does not help the believer to say he/she must be righteous if we do not also provide the necessary Biblical information to accomplish the task. Once saved, God provides each believer a portfolio of spiritual assets that enable him/her to walk in obedience to His commands. Those who utilize God’s provisions and obey His commands will walk in conformity to His will. This is experiential righteousness. For the Christian living in the dispensation of the church age, there are at least six things he/she must follow in order to produce a life of righteousness.
First, the Christian must be in daily submission to God. This begins with a decision to dedicate one’s life to God. Paul writes, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Rom. 12:1). Paul then goes on to say, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
Paul has shown that the gospel he preaches has the power to transfer Christians from the realm of sin and death into the realm of righteousness and life. But this transfer, as Paul has noted (6:11–23; 8:12–13), does not absolve the Christian from the responsibility to live out the righteousness so graciously granted in the gospel. God is working to transform us into the image of his Son (8:29), but we are to take part in this process as we work to make this transformation real in our daily lives.
The Christian is to participate in the life of righteousness to which he/she is called. Positively it begins when we present our bodies as “a living and holy sacrifice” to God. This presentation begins at a moment in time, in which the believer decides to follow God and not the world. To surrender his/her life to whatever God has planned. This is a dedicated life to God. Concerning the believer’s dedication to God, Charles Ryrie states:
What is it that the Christian is to dedicate? The answer is himself. “Present yourselves to God” (Rom. 6:13), “present your bodies” (Rom. 12:1), “glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20), “submit yourselves…to God” (James 4:7)—this is the uniform appeal of Scripture, and it concerns our bodies. If this is so, then it follows that dedication concerns the years of one’s life, since that is the only period in which the body functions. Dedication concerns the present life, not the life hereafter.
This is a surrendered life, a yielded life, in which the believer seeks the will of God above his/her own wishes or desires. The desires of self, no matter how noble, are sacrificed in order to do God’s will above all. This can be challenging, for the believer lives in a world that calls us to live for self, to do as we please, to live our way. But Paul says, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
Second, the believer must be in continual study of Scripture, applying it to every aspect of his/her life (2 Tim. 2:15; 3:16-17; 1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:18). Regeneration does not, in itself, remove a lifetime of worldly viewpoint. The Christian must look to Scripture in order to unseat the worldly mind, for in its pages we learn about God and what He values in life. This requires learning. Paul writes, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Later he states, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Christian cannot live what he does not know, and learning Scripture necessarily precedes living in God’s will. It is only by Scripture that the believer receives “training in righteousness.”
Third, the Christian must learn to be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). The Christian may be submitted to God and learning His word, but he/she must also be empowered to live as God intends. Paul commands Christians, “And do not be drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). When a person consumes alcohol and gets drunk, eventually it influences his thinking, words, and behavior in an obvious and often negative way. The Bible does not condemn drinking wine, but it does condemn drunkenness, in which the believer loses control of his/her thoughts, words and actions. Drunkenness is sin. In contrast to being drunk, the Bible commands the believer to “be filled with the Spirit.”
“Be filled with the Spirit” is God’s command, and He expects us to obey. The command is plural, so it applies to all Christians and not just to a select few. The verb is in the present tense—“keep on being filled”—so it is an experience we should enjoy constantly and not just on special occasions. And the verb is passive. We do not fill ourselves but permit the Spirit to fill us. The verb “fill” has nothing to do with contents or quantity, as though we are empty vessels that need a required amount of spiritual fuel to keep going. In the Bible, filled means “controlled by.” “They… were filled with wrath” (Luke 4:28) means “they were controlled by wrath” and for that reason tried to kill Jesus. “The Jews were filled with envy” (Acts 13:45) means that the Jews were controlled by envy and opposed the ministry of Paul and Barnabas. To be “filled with the Spirit” means to be constantly controlled by the Spirit in our mind, emotions, and will…But how can a person tell whether or not he is filled with the Spirit? Paul stated that there are three evidences of the fullness of the Spirit in the life of the believer: he is joyful (Eph. 5:19), thankful (Eph. 5:20), and submissive (Eph. 5:21–33). Paul said nothing about miracles or tongues, or other special manifestations.
Lewis S. Chafer adds:
To be filled with the Spirit is to have the Spirit fulfilling in us all that God intended Him to do when he placed Him there. To be filled is not the problem of getting more of the Spirit: it is rather the problem of the Spirit getting more of us. We shall never have more of the Spirit than the anointing which every true Christian has received. On the other hand, the Spirit may have all of the believer and thus be able to manifest in him the life and character of Christ. A spiritual person, then, is one who experiences the divine purpose and plan in his daily life through the power of the indwelling Spirit. The character of that life will be the out-lived Christ. The cause of that life will be the unhindered indwelling Spirit (Ephesians 3:16-21; II Corinthians 3:18).
And Charles Ryrie states:
To be filled with the Spirit means to be controlled by the Spirit. The clue to this definition is found in Ephesians 5:18 where there is contrast and comparison between drunkenness and Spirit-filling. It is the comparison which gives the clue, for just as a drunken person is controlled by the liquor which he consumes, so a Spirit-filled Christian is controlled by the Spirit. This will cause him to act in ways which are unnatural to him, not implying that such ways will be erratic or abnormal, but asserting that they will not be the ways of the old life. Control by the Spirit is a necessary part of spirituality.
Fourth, the Christian must learn to walk in daily dependence on the Holy Spirit. Paul writes, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” and “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16, 25). Walking by the Spirit means we are walking in dependence on Him and not relying on our own resources, experiences, or human wisdom. It means we are walking in the same direction He is going, and like a friend, we are glad to be in fellowship with Him. It means God is regularly in our thoughts, and we live every day conscious of Him and His will for our lives (Rom. 12:1-2; Col. 3:16-17). It means being sensitive to what may offend Him, and making every effort to please Him through a life of faith (2 Cor. 5:9; Heb. 11:6). Sin will break fellowship with God; however, the Christian can restore that fellowship by means of confession (1 John 1:8-10). When we walk by the Spirit, we live as He directs and our lives will manifest His work (Gal. 5:22-23; Eph. 4:1-3). It is important to understand that the Spirit guides us Biblically and never by vague impressions. Walking is a learned behavior, and it gets easier with practice.
Constant dependence on the power of the indwelling Spirit of God is essential to spiritual growth and victory. By its very nature, walking is a succession of dependent acts. When one foot is lifted in order to place it front of the other one, it is done in faith—faith that the foot that remains on the ground will support the full weight of the body. You can only walk by the exercise of faith. You can live the Christian life only by dependence on the Holy Spirit. Such dependence will result in the Spirit’s control over the deeds of the flesh (Gal. 5:17-21) and the Spirit’s production of the fruit of the Spirit (vv. 22-23). Dependence on the power of God and effort on the part of the believer are not mutually exclusive. Self-discipline and Spirit-dependence can and must be practiced at the same time in a balanced spiritual life. Dependence itself is an attitude, but that attitude does not come automatically; it usually requires cultivation. How many genuine Christians there are who live day after day without even sensing their need of dependence on Him. Experience, routine, pride, self-confidence all tend to drag all of us away from that conscious dependence on God which we must have in order to live and act righteously.
Fifth, the Christian must restore broken fellowship with God through confession of personal sin (1 John 1:5-9). “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). It is never the will of God that we sin (1 John 2:1); however, when we do sin, we break fellowship with God and grieve and/or quench the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. Sin hinders our walk with God and halts our life of righteousness. Paul writes in two places, commanding the Christian, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph. 4:30a) and “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19). The Spirit is a Person, and He is grieved when we sin and act contrary to His righteous character. Grieving the Spirit occurs when we knowingly commit sin contrary to His guidance. When the Christian commits sin, then the Spirit is grieved and His ministry is diminished, and He must then begin to work on the heart of the Christian to bring him/her back into fellowship. “Sin destroys spirituality. It is necessarily so; for where sin is tolerated in the believer’s daily life, the Spirit, who indwells him, must then turn from His blessed ministry through him, to a pleading ministry to him.”
To “quench the Spirit” is to resist His will as He seeks to guide according to divine revelation. In the early church, God provided special revelation both through His written word (Rom. 15:4), as well as through prophetic utterance (1 Thess. 5:20). “Today, we have a completed revelation in the Word of God and there is no need for prophets. The Apostles and prophets helped lay the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20) and have now passed from the scene. The only ‘prophetic ministry’ we have is in the preaching and teaching of the Word of God.” It is only through Scripture that we possess special revelation about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and what they have provided for us and expect from us. Scripture is our guiding light (Ps. 119:105, 130; 2 Tim. 2:15; 3:16-17), and “refusal to submit to the Word of God is quenching the Spirit, making the fullness of the Spirit impossible.”
Fellowship with God is always on His terms, not ours. He establishes the guidelines for our relationship with Him and if we are to walk with Him, we must follow His commands. God never follows us in our sin, but always calls us back to walk with Him in righteousness. When the believer breaks fellowship with God through personal sin, the only solution is to seek forgiveness through confession. Confession of sin is a common theme throughout all of Scripture (Lev. 5:5; Ps. 32:3-5; 38:18; 51:4; 2 Sam. 12:13; Neh. 9:2; Dan. 9:1-16; Luke 15:18-21; 1 John 1:9), and it is by confession that sin is forgiven. Scripture states, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
According to 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This passage, standing as it does in the center of a revelation of the basis of fellowship with God (1 John 1:5—2:2), is a message to Christians. It avails not to the unsaved to confess their sins, as they have not accepted the Savior who was the sacrifice for sins. For the unsaved the exhortation is likewise summed up in one word, believe. For the Christian who stands in all the blessed relationship to God wrought by saving faith in Christ there remains the issue of maintaining fellowship. It is this issue that is in the foreground in 1 John…The presence of sin in the life of the Christian, however, constitutes a barrier to fellowship. While the Christian’s sonship is in no wise affected, the happy family relationship is disturbed. On the human side, confession must come before restoration into fellowship is possible. The cause for grieving the Spirit must be judged as sin and confessed.
Because sin is easy to produce and because most men are simple in the way they think, God had to make restoration of fellowship as simple as confession. Just as believing the simple message of the gospel saves (1 Cor. 15:3-4), so the simple act of confessing one’s sins leads to forgiveness and restoration of fellowship with God (1 John 1:9). There’s no need for penance, guilty feelings, or any payment on our part. Forgiveness, like salvation, is provided to the believer because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. The simple act of confession as taught in 1 John 1:9 guarantees God’s forgiveness and restoration of fellowship.
Complete assurance is given that this approach to the sin problem is acceptable to God. It is not a question of doing penance nor of inflicting chastening punishments upon oneself. Nor is it a matter of leniency with the Father when He accepts the confession. The whole act is based upon the finished work of Christ, and the question of penalty is not in view. The price for restoration has already been paid. Accordingly, the Father is faithful and righteous in forgiving, not merely lenient and merciful. The Father could not do otherwise than forgive the Christian seeking forgiveness, for His own Son has already provided a complete satisfaction for sin. The process from the human side is, accordingly, amazingly simple.
Sixth, the Christian must take advantage of the time God gives to learn and grow spiritually. The believer does not reach spiritual maturity overnight, and since each believer has only a measure of time allotted by God (Ps. 139:16), his/her days must not be wasted on worldly pursuits, but on learning Scripture and living in God’s will. The growing Christian, who is in pursuit of righteousness, will maximize his/her time and live wisely. As Christians, we all start off as babes who need to feed on the milk of the word (1 Pet. 2:2; cf. Heb. 5:12), and as we grow spiritually, over time, we develop a taste for solid foods (Heb. 5:13-14). As we grow spiritually, we will maximize our time wisely. Paul exhorts Christians, “be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16making the most of your time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16). To live wisely, according to Scripture, means knowing God’s will and having the skill to execute it. Making the most of our time means living in God’s will and acting in accordance with His expectations.
Three Obstacles to a Righteous Life
There are obstacles to the Christian life; satanic impediments that hinder our walk of righteousness. Every Christian is born on a spiritual battlefield and throughout his life will face opposition to the work of God. The opposition will use both pleasure and pain to pull the Christian away from God in order to stifle our walk. The believer experiences opposition from his sin nature (Gal. 5:17, 19-21a; Rom. 6:6; Col. 3:9), the devil (2 Cor. 11:3; Jam. 4:7; 1 Pet. 5:8), and the world system that is all around (Col. 2:8; Jas. 1:27; 4:4; 1 John 2:15-16).
The first obstacle is the sin nature, sometimes called “the flesh” (Gal. 5:17, 19) or “old self” (Rom. 6:6; Col. 3:9), which has a natural affinity for Satan’s values and his world-system. Paul writes, “For the flesh [sin nature] sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you [the Christian] may not do the things that you please” (Gal. 5:17). The sin nature is resident in every person; both saved and unsaved, and is the source of internal temptation. “The flesh refers to that fallen nature that we were born with, that wants to control the body and the mind and make us disobey God.” Since the fall of Adam, every person is born with a sin nature, and it is this nature that internally motivates men to rebel against all legitimate forms of authority, both human and divine. At the moment of salvation, God the Holy Spirit indwells us and gives us a new nature that, for the first time in our lives, has the capacity and desire to obey God (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). Because the sin nature is not removed from the believer after salvation, the believer begins to experience conflict within. “The presence of two opposing natures (not two personalities) in one individual results in conflict.”
The old nature (which has its origin in our physical birth) fights against the new nature which we receive when we are born again (Gal. 5:16–26). No amount of self-discipline, no set of man-made rules and regulations, can control this old nature. Only the Holy Spirit of God can enable us to “put to death” the old nature (Rom. 8:12–13) and produce the Spirit’s fruit (Gal. 5:22–23) in us through the new nature.
The second obstacle is the devil. Before his self-induced fall, Lucifer was a wise and beautiful creature, having “the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezek. 28:12). He was an angel, called an “anointed cherub” (Ezek. 28:14). However, this perfect angelic creature produced sin from the source of his own volition, and the Scripture states, “You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created until unrighteousness was found in you…and you sinned” (Ezek. 28:15-16a). Concerning Lucifer’s sin, the Lord says, “Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom by reason of your splendor” (Ezek. 28:17a). Self-centered pride turned Lucifer’s wisdom into foolishness, and in his madness he sought to usurp God’s throne and rule over His creation. Lucifer became Satan (a term meaning “the adversary”) at the time of his rebellion (Isa. 14:13-14).
The devil is a real, personal being who opposes the Christian and seeks to make him ineffective in his Christian life. He is a formidable enemy of the Christian since he is intent on devouring Christians (1 Pet. 5:8); hence, the Christian is called on to resist the devil (James 4:7). This can be accomplished through putting on the armor for a spiritual battle (Eph. 6:10–17).
The third obstacle is the world. Since the Fall of Adam, God has temporarily granted Satan permission to govern this world (Matt. 4:8-9; John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 6:12; 1 John 5:19). Satan, and those who follow him (both demons and people), are ultimately under God’s sovereign control, and even their evil plans and actions are used for His good purposes (Gen. 50:20; Ps. 76:10; Job 1:6-12; Acts 2:22-23; 4:27-28; Rom. 8:28; 2 Cor. 12:7-10). Satan governs by means of a system he’s created, which Scripture calls the κόσμος kosmos. The κόσμος kosmos “and everything that belongs to it, appears as that which is hostile to God, i.e. lost in sin, wholly at odds with anything divine, ruined and depraved.” Satan’s world-system consists of those philosophies, values and practices that influence humanity to think and behave contrary to God and His Word. John writes, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16). Lewis Chafer provides an apt description of the kosmos:
The kosmos is a vast order or system that Satan has promoted which conforms to his ideals, aims, and methods. It is civilization now functioning apart from God-a civilization in which none of its promoters really expect God to share; who assign to God no consideration in respect to their projects, nor do they ascribe any causality to Him. This system embraces its godless governments, conflicts, armaments, jealousies; its education, culture, religions of morality, and pride. It is that sphere in which man lives. It is what he sees, what he employs. To the uncounted multitude it is all they ever know so long as they live on this earth. It is properly styled “The Satanic System” which phrase is in many instances a justified interpretation of the so-meaningful word, kosmos.
Satan’s world-system is not changeable and cannot be modified to conform to God’s will. At the core of Satan’s world-system is a directive for mankind to function apart from God, and when obeyed, people produce all forms of evil. Worldly-minded persons embrace Satan’s system and love their own because they share the same values of selfishness that exclude God. By promoting the gospel and Biblical teaching, Christians disrupt Satan’s kingdom by calling out of it a people for God. When a person comes to Christ for salvation, they are transferred from Satan’s kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s Son (Acts 26:18; Col. 1:13-14), and become ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). The lifetime of worldly thinking that shaped our values and behaviors are not suddenly eradicated at the moment of salvation. Rather, God calls us to be transformed in our thinking by renewing our minds and living by faith in His Word (Rom. 12:1-2). Though Christians have the capacity, we are not to love the world (John 16:33; 17:14-16; 1 John 2:15). To love the world is to turn from righteousness, and the Christian who loves the world makes himself the enemy of God (Jam. 4:4). Those who love God and His Word share a mutual love for each other. By learning God’s Word, Christians can identify worldly conversations and either avoid them or disrupt them by interjecting Biblical truth. The life of righteousness means we will invade the lives, thoughts and discussions of others with Biblical truth. Of course, this should be done in love and grace (Eph. 4:15; Col. 4:6), not by argumentation (2 Tim. 2:24-26). When we learn God’s Word, obey His commands, and show love to others, we are rebelling against Satan’s world-system and sowing the seeds of spiritual insurrection in the lives of those who live and walk in Satan’s kingdom.
These three obstacles can wreck the Christian as he/she advances toward spiritual maturity and a life of righteousness. The sin nature is not removed during our time on earth, the devil never ceases in his efforts to attack us, and the world-system can never be reformed. The Christian must not only be aware of these obstacles, but must always be clinging to God and His word to guide and sustain.
God is righteous and He calls believers to live righteously in conformity to His character and commands. Once saved, the believer is positionally sanctified in union with Christ, and this status will never change. However, positional sanctification does not guarantee experiential sanctification, as the believer must choose to comply with God’s righteous expectations and advance to spiritual maturity. God has provided the believer all that is needed to live a righteous life. The advance to such a life involves committing oneself to God for service, continual study of Scripture, learning to be filled with the Spirit and to walk in the Spirit, regular confession of sin, and time to grow. The believer who is living the righteous life as God expects will face obstacles, which include the old sin nature, the devil, and his world-system. The believer who keeps advancing spiritually will attain Christian maturity and prove effective for God.
…In 1951 and 1952 I faced a spiritual crisis in my own life. I had become a Christian from agnosticism many years before. After that I had become a pastor for ten years in the United States, and then for several years my wife and I had been working in Europe. During this time I felt a strong burden to stand for the historical Christian position, and for the purity of the visible church. Gradually, however, a problem came to me—the problem of reality. This had two parts: first, it seemed to me that among many of those who held the orthodox position, one saw little reality in the things that the Bible so clearly says should be the result of Christianity. Second, it gradually grew on me that my own reality was less than it had been in the early days after I had become a Christian. I realized that in honesty I had to go back and rethink my whole position.
We were living in Champery [Switzerland] at the time, and I told Edith that for the sake of honesty I had to go all the way back to my agnosticism and think through the whole matter. I’m sure that this was a difficult time for her, and I’m sure that she prayed much for me in those days. I walked in the mountains when it was clear, and when it was rainy I walked backward and forward in the hayloft of the old chalet in which we lived. I walked, prayed, and thought through what the Scriptures taught, as well as reviewing my own reasons for becoming a Christian.
As I rethought my reasons for becoming a Christian, I saw again that there were totally sufficient reasons to know that the infinite-personal God does exist and that Christianity is true. In going further, I saw something else which made a profound difference in my life. I searched through what the Bible said concerning reality as a Christian. Gradually I saw that the problem was that with all the teaching I had received after I was a Christian, I had heard little about what the Bible says about the meaning of the finished work of Christ for our present lives. Gradually the sun came out and the song came. Interestingly enough, although I had written no poetry for many years, in that time of joy and song I found poetry beginning to flow again—poetry of certainty, and affirmation of life, thanksgiving, praise. Admittedly, as poetry it is very poor, but it expressed a song in my heart which was wonderful to me.
The advance to spiritual maturity is a process that takes time as the new Christian learns and lives God’s Word on a regular basis. The world—directed by Satan and his demonic forces—is always seeking to place obstacles in front of the believer in an effort to distract him and get him to think about anything and everything other than his Christian walk with the Lord. Dr. Lewis S. Chafer describes Satan’s world system as follows:
The cosmos is a vast order or system that Satan has promoted which conforms to his ideals, aims, and methods. It is civilization now functioning apart from God – a civilization in which none of its promoters really expect God to share; who assign to God no consideration in respect to their projects, nor do they ascribe any causality to Him. This system embraces its godless governments, conflicts, armaments, jealousies; its education, culture, religions of morality, and pride. It is that sphere in which man lives. It is what he sees, what he employs. To the uncounted multitude it is all they ever know so long as they live on this earth. It is properly styled “The Satanic System” which phrase is in many instances a justified interpretation of the so-meaningful word, cosmos. (Lewis S. Chafer, “Angelology Part 4” Bibliotheca Sacra 99 (1942): 282-283.
The growing Christian must not allow himself to be distracted by the world, or by its pleasures or pains. The pursuit of worldly agendas, no matter how moral or noble they may appear, whether political or social, are a defeat to the Christian if they pull him away from his priority of learning God’s Word, being filled with the Holy Spirit, and walking daily with the Lord Jesus Christ. Though constant distraction is all around us, we are “destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Bringing our thoughts into captivity means focusing our mind on God and His Word (Isa. 26:3; Prov. 3:5-6; Col. 3:1), and not allowing our thoughts to be bogged down with the cares of this world (Matt. 6:25-34). This requires spiritual discipline to learn and live God’s Word on a regular basis as we advance to spiritual maturity. There are at least seven things each believer must follow to reach spiritual maturity:
He must have an ongoing attitude of submission to God and be willing to seek His will above all else (Rom. 12:1-2). The Christian will face temptations from the world and from his own sinful fleshly nature. The ongoing attitude of submission to God will help the Christian overcome these temptations because he will want the Lord’s will above all else.
He must be in continual study of God’s Word, applying it to every aspect of his life (2 Tim. 2:15; 3:16-17; 1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:18). At the moment of regeneration every Christian must begin the process of replacing a lifetime of worldly viewpoint with divine viewpoint. This is necessary if he’s to reach spiritual maturity and glorify God as a believer who effectively serves others (Rom. 12:2; Phil. 2:3-8). The Christian cannot live what he does not know, and learning God’s Word necessarily precedes living His will.
He must live by faith (Rom. 10:17; Heb. 10:38; 11:6). The writer to the Hebrews states, “But my righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him” (Heb. 10:38), for “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb. 11:6).
He must be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). The Christian life is never executed in the energy of the flesh, as though the believer can fulfill God’s commands apart from God’s divine enablement. Relying on God the Holy Spirit requires a knowledge of God’s Word and daily choices to live by faith as the Christian takes God at His promises and follows His commands.
He must learn to walk in daily dependence on God the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16, 21). Willfully walking with someone implies sensitivity, going where they go, staying in step with them, and being sensitive to their speed and movements. The Spirit guides us biblically and never by vague impressions. Where the Scripture is silent, the believer has freedom to exercise his will and live by biblical principles (i.e. love, seeking God’s glory, etc.), conscience, and trusting God to guide providentially.
He must restore his broken fellowship with God through confession of personal sin (1 John 1:5-9). The confessed sin is directed to God, which is faithfully forgiven (1 John 1:9).
He must take advantage of the time God gives him to learn and grow spiritually (Eph. 5:15-17; cf. Heb. 5:12; 1 Pet. 1:17; 4:1-2). The believer does not reach spiritual maturity overnight, and since he has only a measure of time allotted to him by God (Ps. 139:16), he must make sure his days are not wasted on meaningless pursuits, but on learning God’s Word and living His will.
Every Christian will face ongoing worldly distractions in his spiritual life which are designed by Satan to prevent spiritual growth. The Christian has choices to make on a daily basis, for only he can choose to allow these distractions to stand between him and God. The Christian experiences his greatest blessings in life when he reaches spiritual maturity and utilizes the rich resources God has for him. However, this takes time to learn, and ignorance must give way to the light of God’s revelation found in His Word. Frustration is often the handmaiden of ignorance, but spiritual success comes with knowledge of God and His Word.
Truth is reality as God sets it forth in His Word. A plain reading of Scripture reveals that God exists, and that He is not silent. His Word reveals the origin of all things, and helps the reader to understand and orient to the world as it is. More so, the Bible reveals God’s righteous demands toward sin, the substitutionary work of His Son on the cross, and the provision of salvation to those who trust in Christ as their Savior.
The Truth is honest, and provides a straightforward account of man as he is, with all his faults and failures. At times, Scripture pulls back the curtain on spiritual realities and gives glimpses into the angelic realm, and even the throne room of heaven. How magnificent a work is God’s revelation to man! It is complete and sufficient to help men know God. Without Scripture, it’s the blind leading the blind.
Faith is the appropriate response to God and His word. For the unsaved person who is in danger of the Lake of Fire, he must believe in Christ for salvation. For the saved person, he must believe the promises of God found in Scripture, and strive to be obedient to God’s Word in every area of his life. The Bible speaks to every area of the believer’s life, and he should surrender himself to all God’s directives in the church age. The believer who compartmentalizes his life—only giving some of it to God—brings harm upon himself because of his lack of faith and obedience.
Spiritual growth is a process that takes time. At the moment of salvation, the new believer knows little about God and His plan, apart from a basic knowledge of the gospel, and that too may be meager. The baby believer must begin the process of learning the Word of God and making application to his life as he grows. A lifetime of worldly viewpoint must be driven from the mind as the believer learns to renovate his thinking in conformity to Holy Scripture. As he learns the Word, he must bring his thoughts into captivity, choosing obedience to God’s revelation. Any room left for worldliness—to that degree—will produce failure and frustration in his Christian walk.
He will face pressures as he learns to walk with God. The Lord is preparing every child for eternity, and that means removing that which is offensive, and producing that which conforms to the character of Christ. God is more concerned with Christian character than creaturely comforts in His child. God loves him, and will never leave him alone in his worldliness. He loves him enough to grow him, and that means pressure-testing over time, as he learns to walk daily in His Word. The growing believer does not turn away from pressure, but believes that God will sustain him as he strives to be obedient to His Word. Of course, sometimes the believer has no choice regarding his suffering, because God sovereignly places it there and does not remove it. The only reasonable option left to the believer is to trust in the Lord, looking to His Word, believing that the pressures of life serve a divine purpose in producing that which is Christ-like, and removing that which is not.
The new believer needs a lot of grace to grow. Grace from God, and from other believers. Grace is needed because the new believer will invariably learn and do things that are wrong, and will need to be corrected. In fact, he will spend his entire life learning, and being challenged and corrected about many things. He will need grace, because he will fail God’s will, perhaps even denying the Lord by word or action. Sometimes the believer thinks he’s strong, such as when Peter told the Lord he’d never deny him; however, Peter’s words were untested. After the test, Peter realized—as we all do in such situations—that he was weak. Thank God for the grace that was shown to Peter by our Lord, who reached out to all the scattered disciples, and especially Peter. I wish we all would behave graciously like Christ to those whose weaknesses get exposed, and who feel ashamed after such events.
The new believer needs to understand that he will never reach a perfect knowledge of all of God’s Word, or attain sinless perfection in his lifetime. There’s never a time when he can say “I’ve arrived; there’s nothing more to learn about God and His Word. I do not sin anymore.” Perfection, both in knowledge and choice, is not attained in this world. Only in the final phase of salvation will the believer be free from his sin nature, and the personal production of sin. Only in the eternal state will he be completely free from sin and its effects.
Until he goes to be with the Lord in heaven, the growing believer must make good choices that help his spiritual development. Here are a few attitudes and actions the growing believer should follow:
He must make a place for learning God’s Word on a regular basis. He cannot live what he does not know, and knowledge of God’s Word necessarily precedes living His will.
He must be teachable and correctable. The implacable believer has ceased to grow when he is no longer open to correction in his theology, even by one who has less knowledge than himself. Hopefully the growing believer will learn from a teachable teacher, who models humility when shown to be in error about Scripture or Christian doctrine.
He must be patient, knowing that God will spend a lifetime to develop the character of Christ in him. God is eternal, and He has all the time He needs to develop the Christian’s character.
He must be humble, ready to do God’s will when commanded, no matter the cost. This is often challenging for the new believer who thinks in worldly ways, who is still focused on self and seeking autonomy from God and others. The sacrificial mind of Christ comes over time as the believer makes good choices to surrender his will to God on a regular basis.
He must watch out for the arrogant believer who has stopped growing, and who has become friendly with the world. If the arrogant believer rejects challenges to cease his worldliness, then disassociation is in order, and purity must be maintained by the growing believer; but always with an attitude of humility, and willingness to accept the errant believer back into fellowship if he repents. Sometimes letting go of a bad relationship is a sign of growing up in the Lord.
He must think in terms of grace, both for himself and others. He does well to realize that his salvation—as well as his entire Christian life—is the product of God’s grace toward him. At no time does he ever earn or deserve God’s favor. Thinking in terms of grace keeps the growing believer from becoming arrogant by looking down on other believers, or thinking more of himself than he ought to.
Certainly there are more ingredients one might include in the above list, but these are the ones that readily come to my mind.
As the believer grows, he will eventually encounter religious arrogance in the church. He should not be shocked when he sees it, nor suckered in to religious foolishness. I’ve seen spiritual elitism both in the church and seminary: cliques of high-minded theologians who spend their days belittling other believers who don’t agree with them, who emphasize denominational differences, or are dogmatic about doctrines not defendable from Scripture. Rather, they ought to be studying the Scriptures daily, praying, discussing the Word openly, humbly owning up to the fact that they don’t know it all, and admitting that there is room for doctrinal and behavior correction in their lives. I’ve seen little grace and love among those puffed up with biblical knowledge. It’s not from the Holy Spirit that they think or behave in such a way.
The Lord has reprimanded me for sins of academic pride. As a result, I’m a little more gracious toward those with whom I disagree, giving them room, in the hope that I may win them to the truth by making an appeal to Scripture. And if I’m wrong in my teaching, I pray they will see it, reject it, and show me grace. Yes, show me grace, for I too am wrong on some things, even though I don’t see it now. I too need to grow in the grace and knowledge of God and His Word. I need to know the truth accurately, and have the courage to present it when given the opportunity. But I also need to show patience and kindness to those who may disagree with me, especially those who belong to the house of faith, and are growing in their relationship with God.