“But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness.” – Romans 6:17-18 (NET)
Some may misinterpret the purpose of these essays. I do not mean to imply that the majority of Christians are caught in the throes of the born again blues. On the contrary, most of my brothers and sisters in Christ are (as we say in the serenity prayer) “reasonably happy in this life” and don’t need an unqualified curious George such as myself telling them that there’s something amiss in their walk with the Lord. Spiritual depression may not affect their relationship with God in the least. I pray that it doesn’t and if it don’t itch, don’t scratch it. But, since I and a host of other believers have suffered from this ailment from time to time, it’s a common enough malady to warrant a serious investigation into the cause and cure.
In doing so it quickly becomes apparent that the Christian blues can erupt in a nanosecond as if out of nowhere and it’s usually due to serious misconceptions concerning our faith. In fact, I’m not going out on a limb by saying that if a person thinks that his/her belief in Jesus Christ will remove all of life’s hardships and that they’ll encounter nothing but calm seas here on out they’re bound to find themselves down in the dumps when those things don’t happen. He never promised us a rose garden. Quite the opposite. He said if we follow Him we’re in for some tough sledding. We Christians exist in a fallen world in which the very real Satan pulls a lot of weight. When we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior he paints a target on our backs and the minute we downplay that reality we’re in big trouble. That’s why in James it says “…consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials” because (A) you inevitably will and (B) those trials offer us opportunities to not only prove but strengthen our faith. When we let our troubles get the best of us the devil dances on hell’s ceiling like Fred Astaire. He wins. We lose.
This essay’s featured scripture lays out Paul’s idea of what a healthy Christian is. That being one who faithfully obeys what Jesus taught. Failure to conform to this description is a critical reason that we end up donning a funk-festooned outlook. Throughout Romans Paul reminds us of the heavy ball and chain of sin we no longer have to drag around and emphasizes that there should be an air of wholeness to the Christian’s life. The mind, the heart and the will must be fully engaged or we will lack a stabilizing balance in our journey through this mortal phase of existence. That may not sound like a big deal on its surface but an imbalance stemming from any one those areas can result in some folks, after mulling over the revelation of God’s inexhaustible supply of mercy, entertaining inane queries such as “Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase?” Sounds crazy, right? But Paul actually had to address this cockeyed train of thought (starting at Romans 6:1) by telling the members of the church in Rome they wouldn’t be coming up with nutty questions like that if they understood even half of the teaching they’d received. He points out that they must digest the truth of the gospel in its entirety and thereby avoid fueling their tendency to hunt for what they might interpret as loopholes in its logic to take advantage of.
Let’s look at two aspects of the subject at hand. First, our depression often springs from our failure to see the multi-dimensional qualities of the gospel. Some think it’s simply a message of forgiveness for iniquities committed in their past that allows them to pass Go, collect their $200 and then, having gotten what they came for, stop. Others view it as a pleasant and friendly set of ethics to follow. They don’t view sin as a personal problem they need to be saved from, they just want to be nice, moral people. But when troubles arise outside of morality and ethics, such as the death of a loved one or a crisis in their marriage, what they regard as the gospel won’t help them. What I’m trying to indicate is that if we think there’s only one side to the good news of Christ we’re settling for less. A lot less. If your argument is that there’s too much to absorb or that you’re not smart enough you need to be reminded that Paul often presented the undiluted truth to illiterate, uneducated slaves and they got it. Don’t underestimate the unlimited power of what we’re dealing with here. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote: “The gospel is not something partial or piecemeal: it takes in the whole life, the whole of history, the whole world. It tells us about the creation and the final judgment and everything in between.” Its intent is to teach us all we need to know in order to be the hands and feet of Christ. And we can only take possession of the nourishment it supplies by feeding on it daily. That leads us to aspect number two. We must be fully immersed in the Word of God. That means exposing the three constituents that make up the essence of all men and women to the overwhelming power of truth. Mind, heart and will. Leave even one of those out of the equation and we’ll only have a partial and insufficient response to the vast, eternal message of the gospel. In other words, two out of three will only earn you a D.
Allow me to give examples. Some in society consider Christianity to be interesting enough to adopt it as a purely philosophical point of view, espousing that if everyone followed the golden rule planet Earth would be a paradise. They accept the gospel only in intellectual terms. Some who are captivated by theology and metaphysics rank Christianity as one of the world’s great religions but they never take it to heart. They like its lofty concepts just fine but they don’t live them. At the other end of the scale are those who confine the message to their hearts only. They carried a heavy burden that they couldn’t put down until the day Jesus lifted it off their shoulders. The emotional release His gracious act granted them was so all-engulfing that they never sought anything except more of that ecstatic sensation and of finding relief from their pain. This also spills over into the camp of those who crave the mysticism involved in experiencing the immense power of the Holy Spirit. The third person of the Holy Trinity’s potent nature is what they were looking for and, having had an epiphany, they’re content to stay in that niche. Some just want to be part of the pageantry and/or the communal atmosphere of the church service. Life’s been a rocky road for them and the comfort and peace they discovered in the fellowship, the music, the singing and the preaching all combined to give them what they couldn’t find anywhere else. They don’t want to study doctrine, they just want to feel all warm and fuzzy so they halt at the assuaging-their-bruised-and-battered-senses stage and say it’s enough. Included in this group are the star-struck types who were captivated by the irresistible oratory skills and charisma of a particular evangelist or minister. Their emotions were stirred enough to make them come down to the front after the sermon but they were merely following instructions. They’re caught up in something they don’t really understand but, with it being so wonderful and all, they don’t want to risk spoiling it by asking questions. It’s so enthralling in its simplicity that they have no desire to go further than that. The heart glows but the mind and the will are ignored. And, speaking of the will, there are those who are “talked into” becoming a Jesus follower. I was raised in the church from my infancy and by the time I was about nine years old I voluntarily succumbed to the loving but firm and constant pressure from my immediate family to “get with the program already.” It was expected of me and I wasn’t about to disappoint. What my baptism had to do with wild stories I’d learned in Sunday School like Noah’s ark or Jonah and the whale was beyond me but I did know that I had to get myself immersed in order to join the upstairs club. It had nothing to do with my heart or my mind, it was purely an act of will. I suspect that many came to Christ at a tender age in the same manner. All of the people in the examples I’ve given are prime candidates for contracting, at one time or another, the bug of spiritual depression because they are incomplete Christians.
The bottom line is, as Lloyd-Jones put so well, “These are the people who decide to take up Christianity instead of being taken up by Christianity.” The folks I’ve described have one flaw in common, according to Paul. They don’t have all three of the vital elements actively involved in the ongoing maturation of their faith. Jesus wasn’t cruelly crucified so that only parts of us might be saved, he died so that we might become all that we were created to be. God didn’t design us to be unbalanced. He put three powers in us – the mind, the heart and the will – and intended that all three be in perfect harmony with Him. Jesus Christ personified that ultimate, perfect triad of cooperation in who he was and, by doing that, showed us what our goal should be as sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father. We must listen to and absorb the truth first and foremost as we go about doing what Christ said was job #1, seeking the kingdom of God. Jesus sent the Apostles out, not to change society, but to “preach the truth” to the hungry and thirsty and let the truth do the changing. Jesus taught us that the truth will set us free and he wasn’t just whistlin’ Dixie. He is the rock solid truth on which we must stand. If we plant the truth inside of our minds the Holy Spirit that Jesus sent as “our helper” will expand it, enlighten it and deepen it. Once we see the truth in all its glory we come to love it in our hearts because then we know we’ve been rescued from having to eat the fruit of our sinful nature. The truth becomes the mind’s treasure and where your treasure is, there lies your heart. Your mind, heart and will become unified in your desire to be more like Christ every day and the blues fostered by doubt and mistrust will depart because they won’t be able to find a seat in your house.
That’s what Paul is on about in this scripture. He’s saying to the Christians in Rome that even entertaining for a minute a reason to continue sinning is a sign that something is out of whack in their commitment to be like Christ. They’re not “obeying the teaching they’ve been given.” If they understood the profound significance of dying to their old selves and being risen with Him their thoughts could never run in the gutter like that. One can’t be joined to the Savior and be one with Him and at the same time ask if you should “remain in sin so that grace can increase.” Does the merciful pardon handed to us free of charge give us free rein to go out and wallow in sin like there’s no tomorrow? Of course not. It’s inconceivable. Those who know for certain that they are “risen with Christ” are new creations who no longer have any inclination to disappoint the one who opened the door to their jail cell.
The point for us Christians, all of whom have been assigned the duty to spread the gospel, is that we must do it exactly as our Master showed us. He never watered down the truth, nor should we. Check out the Sermon on the Mount, for instance. He told the crowd that blessed are those who mourn, those who hunger, those who are persecuted, etc. Does that sound like someone who is patronizing his listeners with a soft sell? Not at all. His teachings and parables were intended to make people think about the deeper meaning. Give those who are lost the plain, undecorated truth first. Plant the seed. Avoid making overtures to their hearts right off the bat. Try not to put pressure on their wills. The life-changing truth about the price Jesus paid through his suffering, death and resurrection flows from the top down. The mind soaks the raw truth in, the heart claims it and the will has no choice but to follow their lead. How can we tell if all three are acting in accord? We can tell by honestly assessing whether or not the truth of Jesus Christ has altered our lives in drastic ways. Jesus never withheld the truth from anyone because he knew that it was the best and most efficient way to initiate the process of producing total repentance from the inside out. I quote Lloyd-Jones yet again: “God made man in His own image and there is no question but that the greatest part of this image is the mind with its capacity for apprehending truth. God has endowed us with that, and God sends truth to us in that way.”
However, we mustn’t over-rely on our brain cells. As Dr. Larry Crabb wrote, “Something is wrong when the message from a loving God to the people He created becomes an academic treatise to be studied rather than wonderful truth to be grasped and breathed.” He makes a great point and I agree. Balance is necessary. In no way should we think that the intellect is all that matters. God forbid. The seed of truth sprouts in the head but it certainly doesn’t flower there. It grows downward and sends shoots running throughout the entire human structure. The heart catches the infectious fever of love, mercy, patience, gentleness and grace that streams down from the mind and forces, so to speak, the stubborn will to yield to God’s incessant pull. Once the will is energized then the whole body becomes electrified and the bright light that the believer generates in their Christ-infused character shines like a beacon of hope to those who have lost all of theirs. At that juncture the born again blues become as extinct as our inclination to sin for the fun of it. Our prayer should ever be for God to make us balanced disciples, brothers and sisters in Christ of whom the world will notice are undoubtedly and unashamedly “obeying from the heart the pattern of teaching we were entrusted to.”
(Inspired by the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book “Spiritual Depression.”)