Thrive Over Sin (addendum) - What Does the Perfect Life Look Like?
In the 1989 film The Abyss, directed by James Cameron, a diver is invited to use a special diving suit, in which he will breathe a special fluid, instead of air. The argument was that the special diving suit replicates the conditions of the womb, in which prenatal babies breathe oxygen through the amniotic fluid, much like fish extract oxygen from water. While this premise seems obvious enough, the scene shows the diver struggling to come to terms with the fluid. His mind is telling his body that it is okay to breathe the fluid, but his brain is not so confident with the new paradigm.
The struggle of the diver is not unlike the shift in thinking that we ask a person to adopt when we invite them to respond to Jesus and to live their life by faith in Him. Now, we know that "faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1, emphasis added); nevertheless, this paradigm of faith in Jesus calls into question all of a person's psychosocial presuppositions, whether they represent reality or not.
To be honest, I'm pretty sure that the same level of struggle occurs when I teach that Christians can thrive over sin, as per God's expectations of us (Matthew 5:48). In both cases, I am asking others to look at the world through a very different 'lens', and that can be a scary process.
So, I would like to invite you to join me in exploring this process of paradigm-shift and to investigate what it actually looks like to thrive over sin.
Jesus the troublemaker
I love Jesus, but, I have to admit, He was not particularly subtle, and that can be rather annoying at times.
Consider the following passage from The Gospel of Matthew:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” —Matthew 16:21-28
In His teaching style, Jesus had a tendency to use quite bold language, which was meant to be confronting, and to juxtapose apparently contradicting ideas, in order to make His point. In this passage, we see an example of the first of these aspects of His teaching style: He says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” This scene is rather funny —to us, but not to Peter, at the time— funny because only moments before Jesus had declared that Peter was blessed, having been granted wisdom directly from God, as he confessed that Jesus was the Christ (Matthew 16:15-17). But Peter's wisdom only extended so far, apparently, because now he is ignorantly thwarting the purposes of God by trying to keep Jesus safe from harm. Poor Peter!
It was Jesus' intention to allow the sin of the world to reach its fruition in His crucifixion, thus conquering sin and death and making reparation for our sin possible (John 3:16). How could Peter have known and understood this mystery of the Kingdom of God (Romans 16:25)?
One commentary had this to say about these verses:
Jesus’ sharp response to Peter, "Get behind me Satan", may seem at first glance to echo his dismissal of Satan in 4:10 ("Away from me, Satan"). The key phrase, however, is "behind me", which was part of Jesus’ first words to [Peter] when he called him (“come after me” in 4:19; cf. 10:38, 16:24). Peter is recreating Satan’s part by trying to direct Jesus’ path with a vision of earthly triumph. Instead of following behind in the way of Jesus, [Peter] tries to take the lead and plants himself firmly in Jesus’ way. Because he thinks in terms of human aspirations, [Peter] stumbles over the ways of God (1 Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 5:11). This blunder gives Jesus the opportunity to clarify further the role of the disciple. —D.E. Garland, Reading Matthew: A literary and theological commentary on the first Gospel, 2001.
So Jesus very boldly and bluntly corrects Peter's ignorance as a method of teaching him something very important about the life of discipleship. This then also provides an opportunity for a second aspect of Jesus' teaching style to become apparent: He brings together ideas which do not naturally go together, as a way to open up His disciples to learn something very important.
What are the questionable ideas to which I am referring?
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? —Matthew 16:24-26
All of us want to gain the whole world, but certainly not at the expense of our soul! But, in order to help us understand that our desire to gain the world is actually a path towards losing our soul, Jesus depicts following Him as similar to taking up a cross, saving our life as losing it, and losing our life for Him as finding it. These juxtapositions create a cognitive dissonance within us as they are not expected patterns of comparison.
Our brains are naturally wired to recognise patterns. We are comfortable with patterns; they are easy to take. But, to get into our mind, Jesus must challenge our expected patterns, so as to capture our attention and teach us something new.
The problem is that this way of life should not be new to us. We were created to be in relationship with God; to not be in relationship with Him is the abnormal state! Yet, throughout history, humans rejected God and lost the abundant life that should always have been ours. Therefore, Jesus is here challenging the death-dealing lies with which we have barricaded ourselves. "If you want your life back", He is saying, "learn again to live with me!"
This paradigm-shift is very much like being invited to breathe fluid rather than air: We are being challenged to understand our world in ways very different to the principles we have assumed since we were conscious. The difference is that those principles, encouraged by the world, are false and only bring us death. Jesus invites us to breathe, as if for the first time; our initial reaction will be to choke and gasp, but, if we can just relax and trust Him, we may discover that this new way of thinking and new mode of being is as life-giving as Jesus promised.
What is Real Life Anyway?
So what is this way of life to which Jesus is both challenging and inviting us? A glimpse of what this life looks like is found in The Epistle of Paul to the Romans:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. —Romans 12:9-21
Wow, eh? What a picture of the life of the disciple of Jesus? If we could even begin to live a little bit like this, how different our life would be? Remember, though, that this is only a glimpse; it is not comprehensive.
The question is: Is this an attractive way of life? I’m not asking you if it’s possible, but does it seem attractive to you? For the one who is truly and perfectly living in and with God, thriving over sin, this is the kind of life that he or she lives. What tends to be the norm, unfortunately, is that even Christians fall onto and slide down the slippery slope of sin, away from God and the life that He intended for us. But which life do you prefer?
Before I tell you how this abundant life is possible, a life of thriving over sin rather than succumbing to it, let’s take another look at what this life looks like —not from the perspective of examples, but by going to the specific principles underlying these examples from the apostle Paul. Those principles to which I am alluding are the Ten Commandments:
And God spoke all these words:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
“Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
“You shall not murder.
“You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.
“You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” —Exodus 20:1-17
“Oh no. This is starting to sound like those Seven Deadly Sins sermons again”, you’re probably thinking. “How can these commandments be a glimpse of the life of faith? Weren’t they abolished with Jesus?” That line of thinking couldn’t be further from the truth?
At the end of Moses’ benediction address to the ancient Israelites, in which he recounted these Ten Commandments, he challenged the Israelites by stating, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Therefore, we can see that Moses believed that following these commandments would be the path, and the only path, towards true life for the faithful.
What did Jesus say about these commandments? “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). So, since Jesus stated that He came to fulfil the commandments of God and, elsewhere, that He came so that we might have abundant life (John 10:10), then we can conclude that in these commandments there is life!
“But”, you’re thinking, “it’s impossible to follow the Ten Commandments perfectly on our own”, and you are right in thinking that. The key problem here is that we try to do these things on our own and that is entirely impossible. The apostle Paul declared this to be so when he wrote, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). Indeed, the Ten Commandments make us fully aware of our sin, particularly before we become disciples of Jesus. But, the one who lives by faith in Jesus, being a disciple, is no longer a slave to sin. Therefore, for such a person, the Ten Commandments become a promise, a template for our life that is made possible by the Holy Spirit. The Ten Commandments, then, are the definition of thriving over sin.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. —Romans 8:1-4, emphasis added
Because the disciple of Jesus lives by the Holy Spirit, that same Spirit is the power in us that fulfils the “righteous requirements” of the Ten Commandments in our life. Indeed, they become our way of life, if we will let the Spirit guide and empower us to live with God. You and I can thrive over sin!
Conclusion & Response
Are you still breathing? I feel as if this message may be a little confronting to some. So let me restate my argument concisely:
- Jesus used very challenging styles of teaching to help us to discover what life as His disciple would be like;
- He challenged us in these ways because we have learned very destructive patterns of thinking, speaking, and behaving which keep us from being in relationship with our Creator and keep us from enjoying life, as our Creator intended it to be for us;
- Being in relationship with our Creator, the Ten Commandments become a promise to those who abstain from sin, the pattern of living in and with God; and,
- What we cannot do on our own, the Spirit makes possible in us.
Now, take a few moments to reflect on your life. If you are a person of faith, then ask yourself how much your life presently reflects the Ten Commandments’ pattern of life. Are you thriving over sin?
If you are still undecided about whether you accept Jesus as your Saviour, Lord, and Friend, then ask yourself whether you are living an abundant life now. Does your life look anything like that glimpse that the apostle Paul provided us? Does your life follow the principles of the Ten Commandments perfectly? Would you like it to?
For all of us, the hard truth is that to save our life, we must lose it, so that we might find it in Jesus. Can you do that? Can you lose your life to Jesus, the One who loved you so much that He gave His own life so that you might live? Remember that He came back to life, so as to demonstrate not only the truth of what He said about life, but also to prove that life was and is possible for those who believe and trust in Him.
Let me conclude this message by inviting you to reflect again on our theme scripture for this sermon series, and let us each pray for the power to live in and for the glory of our Creator:
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy —to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. —Jude 1:24-25