Human Effort and the Battle with Sin

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We live in a society that believes in human effort.*

The love of human effort can be seen as a siren song that has become a “brain worm”, you know, one of those tunes you hear on the radio or hear on a television commercial, a tune that you can’t get out of your mind. We sing it over and over and it just won’t leave our minds.

This past Sunday, my Sunday School lesson was devoted to Galatians 5. We discussed Paul’s exhortations to the Galatians about their concern for circumcision, their backward steps toward legalism. Paul as much as said that this is not what Jesus intended for you; He came to earth and gave His life for you so you would not have to follow some ritualistic regulation. He gave you freedom. It was His free gift to you. He gave you grace. To be legalistic is to deny Christ.

The class tossed these ideas around a lot. I love it when I become a coordinator of comments, just giving people time to express themselves in some orderly manner. I let the class teach themselves and I throw away my lesson plan.

Then it happened. I knew it would. That “brain worm” showed up. Someone said “we have to do something to get God’s grace”. The focus went right back to human effort.

Pastor Billy Graham says this way of thinking is a major stumbling block in our battle with the flesh. We have to “do” something to make ourselves better or good. We have to perform some human effort. Then he says this: “If we as Christians try to make ourselves better or good or even acceptable to God by some human effort, we will fail.”

Then he really says something that is hard for many people to swallow. He writes “What we have to do is yield ourselves to the Spirit of God.” Yield. For many people, that word is synonymous with giving up or laziness or loss of control or simply just not doing anything. But what does Graham mean by yield?

Sadly, I believe the root cause of so much of our lack of understanding comes from our sense of pride. We think we have what it takes to do battle with the forces [internal and external] that lead us to sin.

Here is the bottom line: we don’t have what it takes.

Here is another bottom line: if we have victory from time to time, it is the Holy Spirit doing the work; we can’t claim the victory as ours.

God does His work in us via the Holy Spirit. He empowers us through the Holy Spirit to transition from the old sinful person to the new less sinful person. Galatians 5: 17 “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another.” Graham mirrors everyone’s experience when he says that the devil often meets him very early in the morning. Like many of us, we awaken thinking that today we won’t allow our problem to reappear. It is not going to assert itself into my life today. But after being awake, the devil sends something our way to tempt us and we find ourselves doing in our flesh what we don’t want to do in our mind.
At that point we need to do the powerful thing; we need to ask God to help us.
He will…through our Holy Spirit.

Every day we are in warfare with our sin nature. We won’t win a battle, much less a war with our human effort.

Here is the bottom line: we don’t have what it takes.

When talking to a pastor the other day, he described a situation that was of great concern to him. He described something that happened that helped a young man get beyond temptation. In getting beyond temptation, the young man felt God working in his life, helping him battle evil forces; the pastor felt that too. But in describing the young man involved, the pastor said something very important. He said the young man “feared God.” Fearing God is a phrase that many struggle with. Coming into today’s church, many pastors preach that God and His Son Jesus are benevolent shepherds, full of love and kindness to all. Why would someone fear God? But that is not what fear means. Fear is the foundation of spiritual wisdom and knowledge. It means awe, adoration and submission to God’s will. It means yielding.

The Apostle Paul instructs us that yielding is the secret. We are to dedicate our bodies, all members and faculties as a living sacrifice pleasing to God. The secret is not human effort. The power we need is right before us. It comes through surrender to God [paraphrase from Romans 12].

As hard as it is to understand, as hard as it is to fight the norms of society, it boils down to the keys to winning the war against sin…

Here is my understanding: in my dependence, that is where I find God. In my weakness, that is where I find God’s strength.

*Human effort is not all bad; no one would accomplish anything without it.

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The Enemy of the Holy Spirit…

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Flesh…

Billy Graham* takes the word flesh and plays with it. He says we need to drop off the h and reverse the rest of the word. What you have in his new arrangement is the word self. Some would say that this is a neat trick but is this more than a trick?

I think it is. Selfish behavior is the root cause of so much sin. Most see the selfishness exhibited in the Garden of Eden as the root cause of man’s sin nature. Eve had a desire to know more but in the act of acquiring knowledge, her healthy desire became unhealthy: she and Adam disobeyed God.

We think of flesh as a term that refers to man’s physical body. The Greek word for “flesh” is sarx** and in early Christian literature, the word actually refers to a functioning entity, not just the epidermis, the outer layer of cells covering the body. In the thoughts of the Apostle Paul, the body is a thing, in and of itself, but the flesh is dominated by sin. Pay attention to his words “Wherever flesh is, all forms of sin are likewise present, and no good thing can live” [Galatians 5].

The Bible makes it clear that man did not start out with sin. Man was made in God’s image. But when Adam and Eve sinned, they did not just sin and suffer the consequences only themselves, their sin was passed on to their offspring…

You and me.

The Bible says that the nature of man is such that we are physical and spiritual and both are affected by sin. We are of course capable of doing great good. We can be moral, we can exhibit high ethical standards, but eventually the flesh will appear. We are bound to be selfish.

Graham tells of a conversation he had with a friend who had been converted to Christianity. This friend recounted a conversation that he had with another friend who had not been converted. The conversation was much in line with conversations I have had with people who have been “too much with the world” aka heavily involved with a sinful life. The man’s friend said “I feel sorry for you. You now go to church, pray and read the Bible all the time. You no longer go to nightclubs, get drunk, or enjoy your beautiful women” [Graham, 102]. This raises the question, how does the flesh manifest itself in human beings? Galatians 5: 19-21 says “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealously, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” [Galatians 5].

Wow, that’s quite a list.

Graham writes “we try to educate self, to train and discipline it. We pass law to compel it to behave. But Paul said that the flesh has a mind of its own and that the ‘natural mind’ is not subject to the law of God.” [102].

This puts all of us in a quandary. What are we to do? Is it a hopeless cause to try to fight this battle with the self? Are we condemned to fail because of our sin nature, our selfish nature?

I have spent the biggest part of my life trying to learn things. Here is a major lesson that all Christians must learn. We can’t win this war. It belongs to The Lord. He has already won it for us; He won it on the cross. What we have to help us is the Holy Spirit. It is hard, but if we can yield to the dictates of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we can have some victory, we can grow beyond some of the sins that manifest themselves in our lives, we can have greater love, joy, peace and other fruits of the Spirit.

The man above who likes going to nightclubs, drinking and women does not see anything wrong with his behavior. A man who has those habits and wants to change may work hard at it, but he can’t do it alone. He has to have help. He has to have the Holy Spirit.

After being confronted by the man who thinks his joy comes from nightclubs, drinking and women, Graham writes that there was a response from the church-going, praying and Bible-reading “friend”. He said “I do get drunk every time I want to. I do go to nightclubs every time I want to. I do go with the girls when I want to…you see the Lord took the want out me when I was converted and He made me a new person in Christ Jesus” [Graham, 102].

The Psalmist says in Psalm 37, “Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

In a single sentence, here is what we can learn…

Over time, delighting in God will alter your desires.

*From his book The Holy Spirit
**From the God Questions Website “What is the Flesh?”

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Walking in the Spirit…

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“We are being progressively sanctified—to spiritual maturity—to bear the family likeness of His Son. Remember that Jesus Christ was perfect—and we are to strive for perfection.…Christians, day by day, week by week, and month by month, are told to walk in the Spirit.”*

This expression of “walking in the Spirit” can be confusing for some. When Billy Graham uses it, what does he mean? Why is “walking” the action that we hear so much in Christian circles?

Well, it is all about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives, and I do mean daily.

In this everyday world, we are constantly bombarded by what I call “the quick-fix mentality.” Sign up for this meal plan and lose 13 pounds in a month. Start taking this pill and you will have energy that you have not had in years. You will experience a difference in a week. Buy this self-help book and it will instantly turn your life around. All the answers you need are right here.

In all these promises you see the need for speed. Also inherent in these promises is need for control.

But let’s examine why the word walk is used to describe Christian life. When walk is used anytime in the Bible or referenced by a Christian writer or ordinary believer, it means practical daily living. It is a reference to the journey we are all on and the fact of the matter is that it is a life-long journey. Literally it is intended to mean that we are attempting to move forward, to make forward progress. Of course it does not always work like that. We all suffer setbacks which make forward progress impossible. Temptations can throw us off track. Doubt is an ordinary human condition; just thinking thoughts like “this God stuff is too good to be true” can pop into a person’s mind. Tragedies can stop us dead in our tracks as we wonder why they are happening.
The promises of God do not include that we will be immune from temptation, doubt or tragedy, but He does promise He will be right there with us as we encounter these stumbling blocks. Actually He promises more than that: God promises that when we have conflict, turbulence, trouble, temptations, and testings, we will grow because of the hard times.

No one was beset with harder times than Abraham. Satan tested him through temptation, and people around him tested him through their jealousy, distrust and opposition. Even his own wife tested him with her constant worrying. Yet Abraham endured, refusing to question God’s truthfulness and power, refusing to doubt God’s faithfulness and love.

Abraham was not hasty, not a man who wanted a quick fix. He is the epitome of patience, quietly submitting to God’s will. He is also the epitome of the faithful follower of God who was richly rewarded.

The idea of Abraham “submitting” is related to the second idea I mentioned above. We love to have control don’t we? Submission seems to be the opposite of control. Yet to walk in the Spirit means we have to yield to God’s control, we need to follow His lead, we need Him to exert His influence over us. This is the opposite of us taking control which many of us struggle with. I don’t know about you, but almost all of the greatest mistakes I have ever made in this life were the result of me trying to push forward, exerting my own force, my own will, my own control. Many times in my life, I have been unwilling to wait; I have given in to anxiety, the pressure to produce, the desire for achievement. In Galatians 5, it clearly says that when the Spirit is in control, God produces Godly qualities within us, apart from the “strictures” of the law. If we can listen to the Holy Spirit, we can crucify the flesh with all its passions and desires; we can walk in the Spirit.
We can move forward…

“Striving for perfection” is not something that happens quickly; it is a lifetime of work. It is not easy. It takes us giving up control and letting the Spirit control us.

But the reward is great. The Spirit can give us new life in our new birth, a life of love and gladness. Worry can begin to fall off, and anxiety can diminish. Patience will emerge. One will be less concerned with self and more concerned for others. God will be pleased because faithfulness will be shown and trust will be our new theme of life. The list can literally go on and on.

Those who walk in the Spirit can truly be filled with the Spirit and if that begins to happen, life will be so much better…

But it takes time…

And it takes giving up control.

*from Billy Graham’s book The Holy Spirit 

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God as Visionary…

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Have you ever been around someone who seemed to be truly visionary?

I tend to be what I would call practical, I guess. I may have a vision from time to time, but I quickly jump from vision to execution, wondering about all the “nuts and bolts” things that have to be done to make the vision become reality. However, I have spent some time with people I would call visionaries. I remember a community leader taking me around to look at buildings. He wanted to share with me how he thought those structures could be used to accomplish the goals he envisioned. He wanted me to understand; he wanted me to see the furniture, the books, and the people working to make the community a better place.

In Billy Graham’s book The Holy Spirit, he spends many pages on the stages of Christian growth. He calls the stage after dedicating your life to Christ “sanctification.” To be honest, God is interested in us giving our lives to Him but after that, He is interested in us growing in our faith, working to make His Kingdom a better place, learning His word, and sharing His word with others [the list goes on]. God wants us to grow closer to Him and grow into being stronger Christians.

We all have to admit, we are a long way from where God probably wants us to be.
But Graham writes “He [God] sees us now as fully sanctified, because He knows what we will be some day. Also, He is at work in us, restoring us—we are being sanctified. And some day that process will be complete when we go to be with Him throughout all eternity…[then] We will be fully sanctified” [italics mine].

It sounds like God has His own vision for each of us.

What must we do?

Buy into the vision that God has for each of us. Believe He will give us what we need when we need it. We need to believe in God’s provision, have faith that God will provide.
We don’t have His vision. We are mired into daily living patterns that can be very distracting, maybe even debilitating. Sara Young is a Christian writer who is one of the most popular authors of devotionals. Recently I read her thoughts on this daily struggle that we all have. She writes from a “God-view” using personal pronouns to represent the thought of The Almighty: “While you wait with Me, I work on renewing your mind. As the Light of My Presence shines into your mind, darkness flees and deception is unmasked. …The more you focus on Me and My Word, the more you can break free from painful, irrational thoughts….all that effort leads to a marvelous result; increased ability to live freely and enjoy My Presence” [from Jesus Always]. This is a process, one that can take a very long time. Graham even refers to it as “progressive sanctification.”
Numbers 21:6-9 New International Version (NIV)

One can turn to Numbers 21: 6-9 where the Lord provided. The Israelites were suffering from poisonous snake bites, fatal in most cases. “Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” God provided what the people needed.
This very same incident shows up when Jesus is speaking in John 3:14-15. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.” Jesus was put on the cross so we could live. John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Let me tell you about another visionary, this one may reflect the “Godview.”
I had an elderly friend who had a wonderful garden in the rear of his home. When I was visiting one day, I went out back and walked with him among his plants. I was amazed at how everything was thriving and he had a wonderful mix of flowers, plants and trees, different colors, different leaf shapes, just a lovely place to be. I asked him how long it took for him to get such a wonderful garden.

He said “thirty-five years.”

When he turned over the earth in his backyard many years ago, he may have had the vision but it took a long time for it to come to fruition.

Maybe this is the way it is with us. We have to be patient, have faith in God’s provision and try to do the best we can in our Christian life.

You might say that we are all around someone who is a true visionary, Jesus Christ. He will lead us to God, grow us in faith and maybe one day we will all have a chance to be with God, throughout all eternity.

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I Will See Much Greater Things Than This

 

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“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out” John 1: 5.

I have been reading the book of John and the more I read it, the more I see the saving message of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, in line with what Pastor Billy Graham is saying in his book The Holy Spirit.

When I commit sins [and I do every day], I sometimes feel a sense of despair; sometimes it is resignation that I am weak and I should be able to do better. If it is despair that I am feeling, it is over the fact that I am not going forward with a life in Christ; I have veered off the tracks. I have taken a turn that I did not anticipate. I have listened to a message in my mind or in my heart that is wrong, hurtful and not productive. I have turned away from the message that God gives me, the message of freedom, hope and joy.

It is hard to explain, this “veering off the tracks.” Is it the spirit of rebellion? Is it thoughtlessness? Is it a misguided quest for some thrill? Is it born of jealousy? Is my sin from my endless quest for attention? Is it due to my greed? Maybe it is gossip that I share, gossip that makes me seem like an insider, a member of the group. But when I gossip, I am judging others, hurting others to make myself look more important.

I start condemning myself. I feel like hiding from God, but boy is that a faulty idea. No one can hide from God. He knows all about us. In John, Jesus is referred to as existing before John the Baptist was born. Earlier in the book we encounter the words “Before the world was created, the Word already existed; He was with God, and He was the same as God. From the very beginning the Word was with God….The Word was the source of life” [John 1: 1-4]. It takes little imagination to figure out that the Word refers to Jesus. It is no wonder that as Jesus met His disciples He knew about them already; He had always known them. He knew of them before they were born, He knew them when He met them and He knew what they would do in the future. Andrew introduced Simon to Jesus and He immediately called him Cephas / Peter. Jesus knew He would meet him and He knew that Simon [the pebble] would become Peter [the rock]. Jesus met Nathanael and Nathanael asked “how do you know me?” Jesus answered “I saw you under the fig tree before Phillip called you.” Nathanael was impressed by Jesus’ foreknowledge and had an interesting response; “You are the Son of God!” Jesus said “Do you believe just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree?”

Then the most important words: “You will see much greater things than this!” In essence, your faith has set you free. The future holds great things for you.

Sin is truly a setback. We all think that when we profess our belief in Christ, our sins will begin to diminish and maybe they will. But for some, the battle is just beginning. Sinful behavior seems to be taking over, but just as Jesus knew His disciples before He met them, He knows you and me. He knows our failings, our weaknesses, our desires that are not based on His values; He knows we are following the ways of the world. Sometimes as we commit to Christ, the attitude is “I believe in you Jesus, but please let me alone!”

It does not work that way. He will not stop in His effort to save us from ourselves. He wants the professed Christian to work for His Kingdom, warts and all. There is real hope in all of this. John the Baptist says in John 1 “He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” [verse 33]. Jesus “is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” [1-29].
You see, no matter how weak we are, God has given us His Helper to steer us through the hard times. He has come to take away our sins; the ones we have committed, the ones we are committing and the ones we will commit. He knows He can use what we are going through to further His kingdom.

I truly believe what the Apostle Paul writes about in Romans, that “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”

I am sure He is disappointed when I sin, but yes, He can use my sin for a greater good……

Yes, even when I veer off the tracks, that is useful for my edification.

I can be more than I am; He knows that there will be a better tomorrow.

I will see much greater things than this!

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Saying “Yes” to the Devil

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When I have sinned, deep down I know that I did it. I felt the pull of temptation. I responded at some point willed to sin. At some point I said “Yes” to the devil as he tempted me through old habits, old desires, my old motives, or appealed to my old goals in life.

 

By starting this post this way, what I have done is I have tried to trick you [I apologize]…
The words above have the personal pronoun “I” and a reader may think this is David Carter speaking about David Carter’s sinning. But that is not the truth. Those words were written by Billy Graham in his book The Holy Spirit. Graham is describing his own personal battle with temptation. Yes, Billy Graham sinned.

You see, Billy Graham fought the forces of evil on a daily basis, just like the rest of us. He, after all, was only a man. One of the big differences between Graham and many people in this world is that Graham is keenly aware that he is a man of two natures, the Holy Spirit nature moving him on from glory to glory with the Lord and the old, sinful nature that is subject to all the demonic forces that Satan can throw at him.

Many who do not know The Lord are not even aware of this “split personality” [if I may refer to it that way]. They are banking on their sense of right or wrong [their conscience] which is grounded in social norms or their whole life just revolves around the avoidance of breaking man’s laws. Maybe they are thinking “I am a good person”; I have no ill-will toward anyone and that is good enough. Sometimes people are depending on their social activism to pull them through; helping the less fortunate is solid evidence that I am a good person. All these things can be wonderful and can lead to good people doing good things. Let’s not demean anyone’s effort to be good.

But deep down, that temptation is still there, pulling us into dark corners where we know we should not be. Graham says “the devil is an implacable enemy. He never gives up. “Through ‘the world’ and the flesh, he appeals to the old force within me to reassert itself. He appeals to my lusts, my covetousness and my pride, just as he did to Eve and Adam. I will always feel the pull of temptation. My old tendencies will be awakened and will want to sin.”

But let’s stop and call in the Lord’s force for good, the Holy Spirit…

First John 4:4 says “Greater is He who is in you that he who is in the world.”

If we cooperate with the Holy Spirit and ask the Holy Spirit to help us, He will give us the power to resist temptation. This is so galling because it does not happen overnight; it can take days, months, years or even a lifetime to overcome major problems but as we have tests, the Holy Spirit can make us stronger as the result of how we handle the tests.

I don’t want to sound paranoid, but the devil will try to tempt us using one weakness and if that does not work, he will use a different means to accomplish his purposes. In yesterday’s Sunday school class, I was teaching from Roman 8 and as we discussed the deep desire we have to grow in our faith and conquer the enemy, a person in class said “the devil knows all our weak points, all the chinks in our armor.”

So true…

It is a struggle. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. Sometimes we act, not even aware that our actions are sinful but as we grow in our faith and knowledge of the Lord, we begin to see that we should not have done what we were doing. When this occurs that could be the effect of spiritual maturity, the Holy Spirit is conforming us more and more to be like the Lord Jesus Christ allowing us to see our flaws.

The good news for all of us is that God recognizes that we are in this inner conflict.

You are, I am, and yes even the late Billy Graham was…

But Christians know we can have victory, that the devil is a vanquished enemy in the end and through the power of the Holy Spirit that lives within each of us, we can eventually win our own spiritual war…

If we say yes to the Holy Spirit…

Yes to our Divine Helper…

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The Basic Problem…The Struggle

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“Now you have become aware of the basic problem in the Christian’s life, the struggle with sin.” [Pastor Billy Graham, 93].*

Just yesterday, I tried to exhort myself to stay strong, to avoid the things I do that are bad, even asking God to give me strength, asking the Holy Spirit to lead, guide and direct me away from some of the evil that I do.

Then I did what I asked God to help me avoid…

Paul’s words from Romans 7 rang so true “I do not understand what I do; for I don’t do what I would like to do, but instead I do what I hate.”

What is going on?

This world is full of darkness, wickedness in public places. Those external spiritual forces are there to trip us up and they can be anywhere. Those forces are there to keep us from God and His will. At times when I am buffeted, I cry out to Satan to leave me alone! He is roughing me up too much. But let’s stop right there. We can overdo the blame on those external forces. Yes, there are external forces that can be evil; those external forces can come in a limitless number of forms, but the real problem comes with our internal nature, our sinful nature. “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” [Galatians 5:17]. The battle goes on inside of us.

Let’s turn to Graham’s paraphrase of Paul’s writing in Romans 7: 7-8. Listen to the struggle. “Before I heard the law of God and the good news of salvation, I didn’t know covetousness was a sin, but then I heard the tenth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not covet.’ God’s law showed me this sin in my heart, and I suddenly became keenly aware of how much covetousness was alive, writhing evil within me. And I realized how great a sinner I was, doomed to die—but for Christ! As a Christian, I began to fight this evil desire in me. And what a struggle! I tried to stop coveting and envying but I couldn’t” [Graham, 94].
Let me highlight some parts of the above paraphrase, “I tried to stop coveting and envying but I couldn’t.”

Sounds like he has lost the battle, but has he?

Let me highlight another part; “I was doomed to die—but for Christ!”

Not so…

Jesus Christ has set him free from the law of sin and death. Jesus Christ is our intercessor at the right hand of God the Father, explaining how weak we are and how much we are in need of His forgiveness. Jesus becomes our intercessor when we accept Him as our Savior. The Holy Spirit comes to aid us in our inner struggle when we accept Jesus as our Savior.

Whew, we should all feel better but Graham cites a great saint who said many years ago, “Sin no longer reigns, but it still fights.” Graham cites a Scottish theologian names Horatius Bonar who wrote “While conversion calms one kind of storm, it raises another which is lifelong.” Efforts to describe this struggle are a favorite topic of Christian theologians. When I was a new Christian, that was the first time I heard of the old man and the new man. I went on an Emmaus Walk** about twenty years ago and I heard of these concepts there. I was warned that the old man is not dead even though I had given my life to Christ. I wanted the new man to dominate but it did not work that way. The “old man would come out of the bag from time to time;” my evil habits would resurface.
That old man is a gift of Adam, the one who sinned the first time and his sin has been passed down to me and all humanity. I was born in sin and as I grew into adulthood I was controlled by sin and sometimes I did not know it. It was when I heard the Word of God and felt His presence that I was convicted. I saw my sins very clearly and asked God to forgive me and accepted Christ as my Savior.

The external forces of evil are there. They trigger evil responses in me. I wish I could just say “the devil made me do it” but it is not that simple.

I participate.

Like Paul, I don’t understand what I am doing. I do what I don’t want to do. I do what I hate.

I do it anyway.

I choose.

The basic problem in my Christian life, my struggle with sin…
*From his book The Holy Spirit
** The Emmaus walk is a three day retreat. The United Methodist Church trademarked Emmaus and devoted the weekend to teaching and learning about Jesus.

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