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A Long, Slow, Steady March

On January 28, 1945, as World War II was groaning to a close, 121 elite Army Rangers liberated over 500 POWs, mostly Americans, from a Japanese prisoner of war camp near Cabanatuan in the Philippines.

The prisoners, many of whom were survivors of the infamous Bataan death march, were in awful condition, physically and emotionally. Before the Rangers arrived, the primary Japanese guard unit had left the camp because of Japan’s massive retreat from the Philippines. The new situation was precarious. Japanese troops were still around and in the camp, but they kept their distance from the prisoners. The men of Cabanatuan didn’t quite know what to make of their new freedom—if freedom was in fact what it was. And then, without warning, the American Rangers swept upon the camp in furious force.

But one of one of the most interesting facets of the story was the reaction of many of the prisoners. They were so defeated, diseased, and familiar with deceit that many needed to be convinced they were actually free. Was it a trick? A trap? Was this real? One prisoner, Captain Bert Bank, struggling with blindness caused by a vitamin deficiency, couldn’t clearly make out his would-be rescuers. He refused to budge. Finally, a soldier walked up to him, tugged his arm, and said, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you want to be free?” Bank, from Alabama, recognized the familiar southern accent of his questioner. A smile formed on his lips, and he willingly and thankfully began his journey to freedom.

Finally, well away from what had been, for years, the site of an ongoing, horrific assault on their humanity, the newly freed prisoners began their march home. In the description of one prisoner, contrasting it with the Bataan nightmare years earlier, “It was a long, slow, steady march …but this was a life march, a march of freedom.”

Fighting Well

I published this post on Saturday…and realized that many people didn’t get to read it. The principles in it are worth reading again…and internalizing. So here goes.

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:24-25 ESV)

If we are going to win the battle against sin, we have to…

  • Have the right view of ourselves.
    • Paul says, “wretched man that I am.” John Newton got this right in the old hymn: Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. The word wretch comes from the Greek word “pierce.” To be wretched is to be pierced through with the reality of your sin. God saves wretches. God saves sinners.
  • Ask the right question.
    • Paul’s question is as important as his answer. He doesn’t ask, “what will set me free.” Rather, he asks “who?” His question calls for a rescuer, a person, someone to step in and save the day.
  • Have the right view of our sinful nature.
    • Paul calls his old sin nature, “this body of death.” This is war terminology, referring to a prisoner of war who has the dead body of a fallen comrade attached to his own body–nose to nose, toe-to-toe. The POW must walk around with this dead body staring him in the face, maggots included. If the POW doesn’t die from the emotional strain, he will die from disease. Your sin nature is that nasty, that gross, that capable of sin–even after you come to Christ.
  • Trust the Answer to the question
    • Paul answers, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” God provided an answer–his only Son. God offered his best for our worst, his strength for our weakness, his Son for our sins. In J.D. Greear’s book, Jesus Continued, he writes:

So when you feel abandoned, that’s all it is, a feeling. A lying, deceptive feeling. It has to be. Jesus faced the full measure of our aloneness in our place and put it away forever. By his death, he reconciled us to God, so that we can know that he will never leave us or forsake us. In some strange way we can never hope to comprehend he was abandoned…for us.

A Done Deal and a Daily Walk

There is therefore now no condemnation for those Finish Linewho are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4 ESV)

Freedom is a done deal and a daily walk. Don’t miss the tenses of the verbs…

  • “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free”—vs. 2
  • “what the law could not do, God did
  • “sending His own son”
  • “He condemned sin in the flesh”
  • “so that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us”

Our freedom was granted through Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. Did you know that all your sins have been forgiven–sins past, present and future. David Jeremiah once said that most people don’t struggle with the sins they committed before coming to Christ. They know that God has forgiven them. However, they struggle with the sins they committed after coming to Christ. I love his response. “I can illustrate that all your sins have been forgiven. How is that? Because Jesus took all your sins on the cross. And every sin you have ever committed was committed after Jesus died on the cross.”

You only need accept that forgiveness. That’s what coming to Christ is all about. Will you accept the forgiveness available through Christ? And for those of you who already know Christ, will you accept His forgiveness for the wrong you did this week. Freedom is a done deal. You are free.

Freedom is also a daily walk. Remember, freedom is an inside job that works out in our lives.   Notice Paul’s next phrase (vs. 4b) “who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” Walk is simply defined as “to move over a surface by taking steps with the feet at a pace slower than a run.”

Freedom is a walk. We take one step toward freedom and then another…and another. Walking is a one-step-at-a-time experience. And one step leads to another, and another, and another. Aren’t you glad God said, “walk” instead of running. Be patient with yourselves.

Here’s where the rub comes. We have a choice. Who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. The flesh will always be the flesh. The question is, “Will we walk as free people, bound no longer by our sin nature?” That is the question of the daily walk. I am not talking about having a quiet time, although that is very valuable. I’m speaking of a daily walk according to God’s Spirit.

How do we do this? I am convinced, first of all, that it isn’t easy. To walk by the Spirit is a moment-by-moment attitude of surrender. It is living your life, not for yourself, but for God. What are the fruits of the life of one who walks by the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

If freedom had not been a desperate need, Jesus would not have died.

If the regiment of the law had worked, Jesus would not have come as God in human flesh.

If life had been intended to be miserable, Jesus would not have undergone the misery of your sin in your place.

If freedom were not a daily walk, Jesus never would have said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

An Inside Job

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:24-25 ESV)

Freedom is found in relationship, not rules. (7:24-25) “Who will set me free”, Notice that Paul does not ask, “What” will set me free. He is not espousing a new technique. He is not suggesting that the 12 steps will free someone from the abuse of alcohol. No! His very question reveals his beginning point: freedom comes from a relationship, not a set of rules. “Thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The one who can set us free is Jesus. He is not a program, He is a person. He is not a new technique, He is a new life giver.

Freedom is an inside job. Your environment does not determine your freedom. Circumstances do not bring you freedom, nor do they take freedom away. You can recite Bible verses, cut off every influence from the outside world possible, but unless Jesus comes and cuts the cords of sin away, you will stand there face to face with your own stinking sin nature and be a miserable wretch. The answer is found in a person, not a program.

In January, 2008, a story made the rounds about a 15-year-old girl in Australia named Demi-Lee Brennan. Brennan became the world’s first known transplant patient to change blood types from O negative to O positive, taking on the immune system of her organ donor. At first the doctors assumed someone had made a mistake, because it’s always been assumed that a change like that can’t happen. Now they say she’s a “one-in-six-billion miracle.”

The blood stem cells in Brennan’s new liver invaded her body’s bone marrow, taking over her entire immune system. She now has an entirely different kind of blood—blood that welcomes life, rather than carrying death. “It’s like my second chance at life,” Brennan says.

Jesus Christ is the second chance on life that will change your life. When you put your faith in Him, He will change you from the inside out!  In other words, it’s who you know, not what you know that counts. Freedom is found in relationship. Our Father-God is the creator of the universe. He made us. He knows our hearts better than we. And he longs for us to live lives of freedom. He longs for us to be free.

Go Bananas

Put five monkeys in a cage. Put a ladder in the cage with a bunch of bananas at the top. As soon as one momonkey-bananav2nkey starts to climb the ladder, spray cold water on all the monkeys. When another tries to climb, spray cold water on all the monkeys again. Soon, no monkey will attempt to climb the ladder.

Now, remove one monkey and put a new monkey in the cage. The new monkey will see the bananas and try to climb the ladder. Not wanting to be sprayed with cold water again, the other monkeys will quickly pull him down. Remove a second monkey and put a new monkey in the cage. Again, the new monkey will see the bananas and try to climb the ladder. Not wanting to be sprayed with cold water, the other monkeys will quickly pull him down.

Repeat this process until all five original monkeys are gone, and five new monkeys are in the cage. None will try to climb the ladder, and none will understand why. Now, remove all five monkeys and put a brand new monkey in the cage. The monkey will quickly climb the ladder and eat the bananas. Don’t spray any cold water. Put the five original monkeys back in the cage with the one brand new monkey who has tasted the delicious bananas. Replenish the bananas.

The brand new monkey will again climb up the ladder. Despite the efforts of the older monkeys to hold him down, the brand new monkey has tasted the bananas, he will strive again until he succeeds. When he succeeds, the other five monkeys will realize that bananas are worth the climb, and worth the risk of some cold water. They, too, will climb the ladder and enjoy the delicious bananas.

And so it is with grace. God’s grace is attractive, we want grace but many of us have spent years being sprayed by the cold waters of performance. Robert McGhee calls it Satan’s big lie:

My performance + The opinions of others = My value.

Corporate America is built around this idea. If you perform you advance. If you don’t you’re fired. This is so ingrained in us that God’s grace catches us by surprise. At the core of one’s value as an athlete is this idea: If I perform I’ll keep my position. If not, I’m fired.

We are in a performance-driven society. And when we come face to face with the grace of God, we’re like the proverbial monkeys who’ve been sprayed with water. Thoughts like, “you mean I just get something for free?” go through our minds. “It’s too good to be true.” “Nothing good is free.” “Don’t I have to do something to earn God’s favor?”

Romans 8 says no. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Let that sink in…and enjoy the banana. If you are in Christ Jesus, you’re free.

How to Pray When You’ve Blown It

The steps of a man are established by the LORD, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the LORD upholds his hand. (Psalm 37:23-24 ESV)

What happens when you stumble? How do you pray when you’ve blown it? This prayer from The Valley of Vision shows us how to approach a holy God when we’ve not been so holy:

O Eternal God,

Yours is surpassing greatness, unspeakable goodness, super-abundant grace; I can as soon count the sands of ocean’s ‘lip’ as number your favors towards me; I know but a part, but that part exceeds all praise.

I thank you for personal mercies, a measure of health, preservation of body, comforts of house and home, sufficiency of food and clothing, continuance of mental powers, my family, their mutual help and support, the delights of domestic harmony and peace, the seats now filled that might have been vacant, my country, church, Bible, faith.

But, O, how I mourn my sin, ingratitude, vileness, the days that add to my guilt, the scenes that witness my offending tongue.

All things in heaven, earth, around, within, without, condemn me–the sun which sees my misdeeds, the darkness which is light to you, the cruel accuser who justly charges me, the good angels who have been provoked to leave me, your countenance which scans my secret sins, your righteous law, your holy Word, my sin-soiled conscience, my private and public life, my neighbors, myself–all write dark things against me.

I deny them not, frame no excuse, but confess, ‘Father, I have sinned’; yet still I live, and fly repenting to your outstretched arms; you will not cast me off, for Jesus brings me near, you will not condemn me, for he died in my stead, you will not mark my mountains of sin, for he leveled all, and his beauty covers my deformities.

O my God, I bid farewell to sin by clinging to his cross, hiding in his wounds, and sheltering in his side.

Sin’s Dangerous Undertow: God’s Gracious Rescuer

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:21-25 ESV)

Gary Smalley tells the story. He was in Cancun, Mexico, with his wife Norma, and two of their children and their families.

The morning was overcast and Norma and I were reading by the pool listening to the waves crash not far from us. I decided to take a break from reading and jump in the ocean to wake up. The water was as warm as the pool; temperature-wise it was the best ocean water I’d ever been in. However, something very serious happened to me during that swim that I certainly didn’t expect.

As I was walking toward the beach to enjoy a brief swim, I noticed there were some flags that were posted along the beach—some red, some yellow. There weren’t many people on the beach so I couldn’t ask anyone about them. I really didn’t pay any attention to them because the water seemed so inviting and shallow that I didn’t think there would be any problems. I didn’t know those flags were riptide-warning flags.

I eased into the water. The waves were large and coming every 5 seconds. I was frolicking, jumping up and down, but I was bouncing out further and further into the ocean. In a short time, I was up to my chest but still had my feet on the sand. When a big wave would come and cover me I was able to jump up most of the way. But with each wave there was a current that was pulling me further out; I didn’t really notice it, however, because I was walking away from the beach.

Suddenly I realized that the water was up to my chin and recognized that the current was pulling me out. I decided that I was going to start swimming back to shore, but I couldn’t get in. The current was so strong and the waves were coming with such force that I felt caught, and was being dragged out farther and farther. I didn’t think there was a problem at first, because I’m pretty strong, and even though I’m 60, I’m a good swimmer. However, the harder I tried, the more I saw that I was not making any progress. I tried swimming under water, but when I came up for air I was hit by a giant wave and I started to swallow water. I started to panic. I was getting tired and I realized I was in a mess. The waves crashed over me and I was taking in too much water. I had no energy left. I looked to see if anybody was around that I could scream to, but the waves were so loud that a scream wouldn’t have been heard. I waved my arm up in the air to see if somebody could see me, and I noticed in a split second a young lifeguard sitting in a tower that I never before noticed. He saw me and waved back. He then jumped out of the tower, ran to the ocean, swam out to me, and threw me a large red floating device with handles and a big rope.

Then Smalley adds:

Here’s what I learned: When you are struggling with food, love relationships, immoral thoughts, bad habits, any kind of addiction (from shopping to drugs), the current is pulling you out. And you can’t do anything about it in your own efforts. Many of us who have been addicted know the reason we get depressed is because we know it’s hopeless. We’ve tried to change, we’ve tried diets, we’ve tried disciplining ourselves, we’ve tried getting up early and praying, we’ve tried different things, but nothing seems to work. Jesus is actually the one who overcomes the addiction, the one who gives us the power to sustain. You have a lifeguard—Jesus Christ. He throws the floating device, grace, to you.

Paul had tried methods. He had tried almost everything. He answered the question with almost a sigh of relief: Thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Mind of Christ

All is not lost. There is hope. Look at Paul’s words:

I have the desire to do what is right (Romans 7:18)

I delight in the law of God in my inner being (Romans 7:22)

The law of my mind (Romans 7:23)

Here we see the opposite of the flesh, the archenemy of the enemy within. This is why the most miserable people on earth are not sinners, but believers who have chosen to live a life of sin. They are the most desperate, the most despairing of all. Why? Because inside them is a desire to do the right thing.  Look again at verse 18. The New American Standard renders it: the willing is present in me. The word present here literally means to lie near.

When we accept Jesus by faith, we have the desire to do the right thing. That’s why a man and woman can come to Christ and feel convicted about living together unmarried. That’s why an alcoholic feels badly when she takes another drink. That’s why a lust-filled man has a sense of satisfaction when he refuses to lust after another woman. The willing is present in them. That desire lies in wait for temptation. And when temptation presents itself, that desire says, “No.”

What is your ally? A renewed mind.

Romans 12:2 “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…so that you may prove what God’s will is, His good, pleasing and perfect will.”

What is the problem? Our minds aren’t renewed. We spend our time thinking about our failures, planning our next step into sin, anticipating the next direction we’re going to take. Our thinking processes have never changed from our sinful way of life. The problem is that we carry old patterns of thinking into our lives with Christ. There is a conflict between the old nature and the new nature, between the old way of thinking and the new way of thinking.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:14-16 ESV)

When you and I come to know Christ, we are given the Holy Spirit who lives inside of us. As He resides within you, He gives you the views, the feelings, the temperament of Christ. You are able to think like Jesus Christ. You are able to make decisions like Christ would make. You are able to respond to situations as Jesus Christ would.

What is the sin that continues to tangle you up? How does your thinking need to change? Change it today.

I Don’t Understand

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:14-15 ESV)

The flesh is the earthly part of man, representing lusts and desires. The flesh is contrary to the Spirit (Galatians 5:17). Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:8). Galatians 5:19-23 contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit.

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of GodGalatians 5:19-23 ESV)

The flesh is a dangerous enemy within. For some of you this is the starting place. You need to say: I am of flesh. I have lusts. I have desires. I want to do things that are ungodly. I want to sin.

In Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three, his novel about the French Revolutionary War, a ship is caught in a terrible storm. The crew’s problems worsen by the realization that a cannon is loose below deck. Every wave turns the unchained cannon into an internal hazard. Two brave sailors risk their lives to go below and secure the loose cannon. On their descent into the ship, they discuss the fact that the cannon within is more dangerous than the storm without. Although there is much to fear in life, our greatest danger is the sinful nature within us.

Sold under sin is a phrase is borrowed from the practice of selling captives taken in war as slaves. The slave, in this situation, has no choice. He is a casualty of war.

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:15 ESV)

If it was ok for Paul to say, “I do not understand,” then it’s ok for you too. Paul did not understand. Paul, who trained under Gamaliel, the esteemed scholar of his day, did not understand. Paul, who started churches in virtually every place he traveled, did not understand. Paul, who wrote the majority of the New Testament, did not understand. And if Paul did not understand, it’s ok if you don’t understand. Get used to saying, “I don’t understand.”

What does Paul not understand? He does not do what he wants to do. He sins when he wants to do the right thing. In verse 17 Paul identifies the problem: For the longest time I thought this verse sounded like a cop-out. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:17 ESV) But it is not. In the original language, there is a word that is not rendered in the translation. It should read: “So now it is no longer I who do it, but the sin that dwells in me.” Paul is referring to the sinful nature. When he sins, he (the new Paul after Christ) is no longer the one doing it, but the sinful nature (the old Paul before Christ). For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. (Romans 7:18)

A Prayer and a Practice

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.  (1 Corinthians 2:14-16 ESV)

When you come to know Christ, you are given the Holy Spirit who lives inside of you. As He resides within you, He gives you the views, the feelings, and the temperament of Christ. You are able to think like Jesus Christ. You are able to make decisions like Christ would make. You are able to respond to situations as Jesus Christ would.

“How can I do this?” you may ask. “How can I reinforce this ally that fights against my old sinful nature?”

I want to be very practical here. I want to suggest a prayer and a practice. The prayer comes from Robert McGhee’s work, Search for Freedom.

Dear Lord, I have believed the wrong thought of (name the thought). I hate thinking this thought. This thought is not a healthy one for me. It is against what you want me to think. I want to bring my thoughts into obedience to your thoughts. (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). I also want to think about things that are worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:8) Thank you for forgiving me, for accepting this thought that has affected my life so negatively. I now, by my own free will, choose to replace the wrong thought of (name the thought) with what you want me to think. The next time I think that wrong thought, help me to tell you and change it. Thank you for the truth that sets me free.

The practice: memorize Bible verses. Scripture is the most powerful tool used by the Holy Spirit to renew the mind. Scripture verses, when applied to your heart, can change your life. The Spirit uses the Word. And when the Word is in our hearts, we will advance—not retreat.