It lives near each of us. One head is the world we’re in, one’s the devil who hates us and the third is the weak flesh we’re made of. If the monster’s faces were hideous we’d do everything feasible to steer clear. But more often than not the monster appears as a harmless acquaintance that’s dropped by for a friendly chat. It’s happy to offer advice on how to make your life run smoother and it’s not averse to bringing up Christianity. It’ll strongly suggest that if you accept Jesus into your heart (and then flawlessly toe the line of His Laws) everything you feel you’re entitled to but not receiving in the here and now will be delivered to your doorstep on a silver platter. Pronto. It’ll insist that God’s promised His children a hassle-free existence and back up that claim quoting selected Old Testament Scriptures. It’ll conveniently avoid bringing up what the New Testament writers taught. Paul in particular because he was astonishingly transparent about the pain and hardship he gladly endured for the sake of Christ.
What’s even more amazing is that Paul didn’t gripe about his less-than-ideal circumstances. Rather he used them to remind us the “Good Life” that comes from following Jesus is our freedom to draw near Him in the midst of our worst trials, not an invitation to dance with the angels through a rose garden. In his letter to the church in Corinth he didn’t withhold the sobering truth about being a Christian. “We are experiencing trouble on every side, but are not crushed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are knocked down, but not destroyed…” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). Does that sound like a walk in the park to you? Larry Crabb wrote of this passage, “Paul’s life was not a pleasant experience. By admitting it and by abandoning all hope that it ever would be pleasant, the pressure was off to figure out some way to make life work. Paul lived to know God, not to use Him.” The old way of “do this – get that” didn’t appeal to Paul in the least. He wrote, “For if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone” (1 Corinthians 15:19). The material things of this world will pass away. Don’t waste precious time coveting or hoarding them. He’s telling us to face the fact this is a messed up, fallen world and to think we can fix it is a foolish pipedream. Because he could so easily relate to them, Paul was fond of referring to the Psalms where one finds a lot of dismay, confusion, and anguish being expressed. Not to justify complaining but to point out the old way didn’t and never had worked like we wished it would. Yet in the same Psalms we find a lot of unbridled praise for God’s goodness, as well. Obviously the praise isn’t because God had blessed the writers with an earth-based “Good Life.” It was because they’d been freed from the “pressure to perform” that never paid earthly dividends, anyway.
Paul was affirming that, yes, life’s a dimly-lit road filled with potholes yet we who are saved will persevere. “We do so because we know that the one who raised up Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus and will bring us with you into his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:14). There’s a warm, eternal light at the end of every believer’s tunnel! In reading Paul’s letters you begin to understand that making his life work to his personal advantage wasn’t a priority to him. If it was, he would’ve turned his back on evangelism, gone back to Jerusalem, made convincing apologies to the Jewish leaders, testified publicly to being one who’d seen the error of his ways, made the necessary reparations and likely been rewarded with a cushy position in the religious hierarchy. But Paul had a firm grasp on what being a dedicated ambassador of Christ entailed and the hardships involved didn’t deter him one bit. He was content with what God provided. He knew his dangerous mission and that the scars he incurred along the way would be admired in heaven “For all these things are for your sake, so that the grace that is including more and more people may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:15).
After his shocking encounter with the risen Christ, Paul never went back to living life the old way. The new way was much better. Crabb wrote, “The Old Way identifies real desires in the human heart, desires for meaning and love and fulfillment and freedom, then goes no deeper. It fails to discover our pure, consuming, relentless desire to be in the presence of a perfect person, to gaze at the beauty of absolute holiness the way a beginning artist stares at a Rembrandt masterpiece. The Old Way sees only desires that point inward, to the self, and assumes that Christianity is centrally concerned to satisfy these desires through whatever does the job.” The three-headed monster is a rabid fan of the old way. It’ll make what’ll sound like reasonable suggestions on how to have your cake and eat it, too. It’ll whisper, “God doesn’t want you to live paycheck to paycheck. He wants you ‘livin’ large.’ Just show God you’re doing everything right. Attend more spiritual conferences. Teach a Sunday school class. Buy and read that slick TV preacher’s new book about how to “realize your potential.” Pray harder. Maybe see a therapist about your depression. That helps lotsa folks, you know. Whatever. God ain’t gonna just hand success to you!” The monster can gussy itself up to look like a haloed saint. But its aim is to set us up for disappointment when the inevitable setbacks and problems arise. At that juncture sinful pleasures will start looking better and better and, before you know it, the monster will have won another battle.
The new way is all about Christ. The old way is all about me. About my emotional state of mind. About being satisfied with my religiosity. About how upbeat I’m feeling today. About whether or not my grown children respect me as I think they should. The old way teaches me (via trial and error) how to efficiently manipulate my surroundings so I always come out on top. If I don’t I’ll do a thorough analysis, identify my mistake and fix it myself so it won’t happen again. God becomes nothing more than a safety net. I speak from experience. The old way is a beckoning siren on the reefs. I got baptized when I was nine but in the fifty years that followed the Bible became just another dust-covered book on my shelf I’d read once upon a time. I had the Ten Commandments down pat and assumed that as long as I obeyed them I’d get what I wanted out of life. Hey, God owed me that much. But nearly eight years ago I suddenly found myself staring into an abyss. My well-paying job left town without me. My wife found out nasty things about me she’d never suspected. My marriage was in jeopardy. I’d alienated all my friends. The old way had failed me. I finally turned to God. He asked, “You done?” I nodded. He said, “About time. Come near. Let me show you how to live the 2,000-year-old new way.”
The overseer of the new way is the Holy Spirit. He’s the third person in the Trinity. He knows the Heavenly Father. He emanates from Him. He knows the Son. He’s literally “Christ’s Spirit.” The Scriptures tell us the Spirit is God. Thus He’s holy and perfect in His righteousness. He is, in every sense of the word, love. When He speaks it’s to direct us onto the Holy Path that’ll lead us into the presence of the Great I AM. I chuckle when I hear folks rant about how we’re losing our “right to privacy” because there’s technically no such thing and there never has been. The Holy Spirit hacks into not only all our emails and best-kept secrets but every single thought that passes through our tiny brain. We can put up a good Christian front but He peers right through our masks and knows we yearn for God’s blessings more than we yearn for God. Yet it’s not His job to judge us; it’s to fill us with hope. To reignite our passion to live and love like Jesus. To fix our eyes on the resurrected Christ who’s “overcome the world.” To rehabilitate our selfish hearts and transform us into useful heralds of the kingdom of God. To reassure us that, contrary to how things seem, God’s in control. That He hasn’t failed one of His adopted children yet and neither you nor I will be the exception. That condescending voice we sometimes hear that tells us we’re missing out on the fun stuff; that we should be at the front of the line instead of bringing up the rear; that trusting wholly in God is just an excuse to settle for being a lazy panhandler isn’t the voice of the Holy Spirit. It’s the voice of the three-headed monster. Tell it to stick a sock in it.
The old way was a disaster. God had a solution. “’Indeed, a time is coming,’ says the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt. For they violated that covenant even though I was like a faithful husband to them,’ says the LORD. ‘But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,’ says the LORD. ‘I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people. People will no longer need to teach their neighbors and relatives to know me. For all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me,’ says the LORD. ‘For I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done.’” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Only the Holy Spirit can put the law in us and write it on our hearts and He couldn’t do that until the Lamb of God had defeated death. Jesus said to His disciples, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come. He will glorify me, because he will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you” (John 16:12-14). That’s the voice we must listen to. It’s not a magic trick. It’s the real deal. Crabb wrote of the Holy Spirit, “What I thought was spiritually elitist and suspiciously mystical, I now see as available to everyone and intensely practical.”
If this sounds too “out there” for you, think again. The Bible assures us it’s the truth. Christ and the Holy Spirit ushered in the new way thousands of years ago. “On the one hand a former command is set aside because it is weak and useless, for the law made nothing perfect. On the other hand a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God” (Hebrews 7:18-19). That means we don’t have to consider ourselves a “finished product” before we can receive genuine love from God and pass it on to others. We don’t have to make our lives run like fancy Swiss watches before we can worship the Heavenly Father and be of use to Him in the outworking of His master plan. I recently noticed a stunning headline that read “Astronomers have discovered there are ten times more galaxies in the universe than previously postulated.” A big problem too many of us have is that we just can’t come to grips with the fact the same God that caused such an unfathomably immense creation to come into being can possibly love us and see to our individual needs.
When we confront our true selves we’re usually disgusted with what we find. Simon Tugwell wrote, “And so, like runaway slaves, we either flee our own reality or manufacture a false self which is mostly admirable, mildly prepossessing, and superficially happy. We hide what we know or feel ourselves to be (which we assume to be unacceptable and unlovable) behind some kind of appearance which we hope will be more pleasing. We hide behind pretty faces which we put on for the benefit of our public. And in time we may even come to forget we’re hiding, and think that our assumed pretty face is what we really look like.” In other words, we begin to deem the indwelling Holy Spirit and the new way a made-up fairy tale and revert back to thinking we have to heed the advice of the three-headed monster because it just makes more sense to us. We don our mask, scurry back into the mine, grab a pickaxe and start chipping away again, looking for gold.
Henry Nouwen wrote, “Over the years I’ve come to realize that the greatest trap in our lives is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they’re part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we’ve come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”
One detestable habit I have is going the opposite way and rationalizing that, if God loves me so much, my sin won’t be all that reprehensible to Him as long as I keep it on a tight leash in the shaded shadows of my being. I don’t truly repent; I just hide my “unattractive traits.” I have a hard time accepting that in my weakness I am strong. Brennan Manning wrote, “Christians who remain in hiding continue to live the lie. We deny the reality of our sins. In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others. We cling to our bad feelings and beat ourselves with the past when what we should do is let go. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘guilt is an idol.’ But when we dare to live as forgiven men and women, we join the wounded healers and draw closer to Jesus.” And drawing closer to Jesus is the very essence of the new way!
Understand the monster isn’t going to shut up. It’ll continue to tell you if you encounter tribulations and heartaches in this life it must be due to your failure to do everything correctly; that you’re not performing up to snuff; that God only helps those who help themselves. Don’t listen to its false teachings. They’re founded on the defunct old way. Paul’s a great example of a person living the new way. He pleaded with God to remove the painful “thorn in his side” but God didn’t. Instead, He told Paul, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul didn’t pout or go into hiding. He turned lemons into lemonade, proclaiming, “So then I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). The monster ridicules Paul’s response and insists copping his attitude will get Christians nowhere. But the proof’s in the pudding. Read your Bible. The old way never did work. It only brought unproductive pressure to bear down upon God’s children and kept them from enjoying life to its fullest. The monster despises the new way because it negates its ability to shackle us with the Law of Linearity’s chains and to encourage us to question God’s sovereignty. Only by trusting in and listening to the Holy Spirit are we truly free.