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My mind was racing. I had an appointment a few minutes away. I was not sure I could face it. I was just pulling out of the nightmare of two long days of tortuous counselling with Esla, a young woman who insisted she was a Christian but had been accused of living in open sin. I had implored her to tell me the truth, and she had done exactly that. She had painstakingly narrated how for several years she had done her best to keep to the "holy path", but her attempts had brought her only continuous inner battles. She felt she was being crushed between two great mountains - the realities of her life and the expectations of her faith. Her final decision was what jolted me: I decided to remain a Christian. I can't deny Christ. The fact of my destiny without him is too clear to me. But I will no longer draw myself into those fanatical expectations that I can live clean like Jesus Christ. I trust that when Jesus comes he will wash me clean; for now, I can only be human.
Two months have passed and the nightmare of my failure to find a quick fix to Esla's problem is only beginning to fade away. Now I am in for another turn.
I sighed as my thoughts drifted to mypresent worries: "What if there are a number of others in our church with similar stories? What if everybody is like this, only pretending not to be?" Then I slipped into my deepest worry. Fred, one of our activity group leaders, had come in yesterday morning and calmly told me he had quit the faith. I managed to ask if it was because of the financial crunch he had been bearing for some time. "It's not that," he replied. "I think the Lord has really provided for me. The truth is that I am either an incurable sinner or I am not yet ripe for salvation."
I took a deep breath and tried to calm the cadence of my heartbeats and listen carefully. "The rate at which I get in and out of little sins is increasing by the day. My imaginations are mostly filthy. I get to envy easily. I lust for what should be shameful, and it is as if I cannot stop myself." I was astounded that he could say such things in the plainest language and felt totally unprepared to handle the situation. If he were sorrowful, I would have tried to calm him, encourage him and talk him back to faith. If he were boastful or lying, I would have rebuked him. But here he was, fully aware of being wrong, and yet with no real sense of guilt! I started pitying myself. How on earth was I to handle this situation again? My heart lifted to God for a moment. Then, I recalled my consciousness in time to catch what he was saying:
Last night I woke up in the middle of the night. The entire place was dark and I remembered the mess I had slid into. I thought I should pray to God to help me out. But as I made to get out of bed, I noticed I was sandwiched between the wall and a woman. I wondered where I was. Then it hit me. I had wandered into a restaurant the previous night just to say hello. The proprietress was not in, and so the girl had served a variety of snacks, food and some drink. We went on to play cards and joke. My initial intention was to preach the word to her, but she was so warm in welcoming me and so excited that I came, that my resistance waned as I basked in the comfort and warmth of her company. Before I knew it, it was already far into the night and she persuaded me to stay. I sat up by the snoring girl wondering how I would explain this to my wife. At about four this morning I dashed home, only to lie to my wife that I had missed the last bus while we were praying with a troubled family.
He must have suspected my mind was wandering away again. Of course it was. I was wondering why he was filling me in on all these details, as if he were boasting of his exploits. He gave me a cold look:
I need a break. I am a disgrace. I can't teach in the church and live this way. I have fought frantically to stay afloat in the faith for quite some time now, but I get worse and worse. I suppose the best thing for me to do is to throw in the towel, go into the world, really try these things and keep on experiencing them till I begin to loathe them. Then I can stand without falling back.
What was the problem? Esla, too, had talked of this inner struggle to conform to holy living. She chose to accept worldly standards. Fred claimed to have initially fought to remain holy. Yet he finally failed. And that led to a worse situation. As though tethered to a boulder rolling into a ravine, he slipped from one problem to another in quick succession, and now talked as though he were lying at the bottom of the cliff in the shadow of death. Even if he had fallen into sin, why was his reaction to quit? My mind raced wildly through a forest of ideas.
I knew Fred fairly well, and one thing I knew about him was evident in the way he told his story. He was inclined to be smug. He must have been taught that there is room for forgiveness and cleansing if a Christian falls into sin. But Fred was the kind who would never accept that he had really made an A grade unless he scored 98 per cent. He was like Peter the apostle, confident in his own abilities. When Peter shared his opinion, he wanted everyone to believe it was a well-thought-out opinion. He was so confident that he even rebuked the Lord for his decision to go the way of the cross (Matt. 16:21-23). Jesus rejected that rebuke. Peter must have felt even more rebuffed when he saw his Lord arrested in Jerusalem. Jesus had predicted that Peter's pride would go before a fall (Luke 22:31-34). The feeble structures of his ego would be reduced to rubble. And he did indeed fall flat (Luke 22:54-60). The Lord's mighty hand humbled Peter so that he abandoned his efforts to rebuild that structure and clung to the Lord who was able to save his soul.
Perhaps Fred was passing through the same experience. His self-confidence must have informed his struggle to get clean and so please God, whereas he should have been flying to God for mercy. Who knows what a barrage of questions Fred must have asked himself? He had concluded he was unable to remain holy and must thus be rejected by God.
Fred's problem is in line with another one that should be of concern to many a church board: many potential candidates insist that they are not worthy to become ministers in the church or missionaries in other cultures. They regard being holy and not sinning as a prerequisite for ministry to others.
Their concern raises an even more profound question, one that was bothering Fred too. What does it mean to say that Jesus saves? Does receiving Jesus mean that he will actually prevent people from falling into sin? Does salvation have any appreciable effect in the present? Does it affect people's tendencies, character, conduct and general affairs? Are the lives saved completely redeemed in tangible terms from all defilement, accusations, and devil-propagated influences? What and how long does it take before believers become Christ-like?
The Bible states that "if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" (2 Cor. 5:17). Is the old order really completely gone? And is the new, in which only righteousness and the joy of holiness rule, come to us here on earth?
We see people embrace faith in Christ with great joy and enthusiasm. In the first few weeks after accepting the gospel, their old weaknesses and failures seem to have been jettisoned. They seem to have now found strength to overcome all the impediments that try to come between them and God. They are propelled with a new zeal and insist that "with God all things are possible". They tend to speak in absolute terms.
Unfortunately (and this is really unfortunate because it seems to apply to all Christians) soon after those early weeks in the faith, the "old" seems to creep back and begin to rear its ugly head. The deeply repentant become introspective and quiet down to find out what is going wrong. The more superficial continue with the outward noise and try to ignore or hide whatever is going wrong inwardly. Thus starts a lifelong struggle that has afflicted every Christian from Bible times till today. We all have to come to grips with some not-very-straightforward choices involving our faith.
Judas Iscariot endured this struggle and yielded to the strong temptation to choose money and betray Jesus. But once he had collected the money and the Lord had been led away and condemned by his enemies, the weight of his wrongdoing came upon him. He was presented with an even harder choice: to live and face his shame or to die. He forgot about God's mercy and chose to die (Matt. 26:14-16, 47-50; 27:1-5).
Peter's denial of the Lord came when he was forced to choose between risking his life by associating with the publicly rejected Jesus or saving his head for his wife. He denied Jesus in order to live. But thereafter he must also have been faced with the further choice of whether to continue on the path of denying Jesus. Guilt-stricken, he turned around and wept (Luke 22:54-62).
All the disciples ran away when Jesus was arrested to be crucified (Matt. 26:56). What inner shame must have stalked them when they were gathered in the upper room and the same Jesus they had deserted in trouble appeared and breathed upon them, "Peace!"
Paul, too, must have had inner struggles. When we read his words about the thorn that Satan sent to torment him (2 Cor. 12:1-10), do we stop to think what it must have been like for such a unique servant of Christ to have to struggle with something like this? He must have known inner conflict and been humbled and tempted to quit. Not even to mention the suffering he endured at the hands of the envious Jewish leaders. His nephew once brought news of a plot to kill him (Acts 23:12-22). That nephew and Paul's other relations were probably not yet Christians, and they must have put some pressure on Paul to withdraw from his collision course with the Jews. Quite some inner struggles!
All those who have walked with God were tempted like this. Abraham had to choose between God's demands and accepting the views and values of the world. He struggled with not having a son and had to choose between waiting on God and philandering with his housemaid. He tottered, choosing the latter, thereby creating a 13-year silence between God and himself (Gen. 16-17:2). Later on in life, when he had matured in the things of God through experiences of faltering and triumph, he took his only son to sacrifice him in obedience to God (Gen. 22). But not without an inner struggle!
The list keeps running: David struggled against taking another man's wife. He failed. He slipped further into murder to cover it up. God would not tolerate that! An inner struggle to humble himself to God before Nathan ensued. David made the right choice (2 Sam. 11-12:13). He had earlier in life made a string of such right choices when he spared Saul's life (1 Sam. 24; 26) and honoured Mephibosheth, Jonathan's son (2 Sam. 9), yet none of these choices was made without a struggle.
Job struggled between loyalty to God and either accepting guilt for sins he had not committed or cursing God for causing him to suffer. He trusted in the righteousness of God and triumphed.
Moses, repeatedly tempted by the unfaithfulness of the Israelites, managed to live victoriously until he made one little choice: he failed to honour God with full obedience when he turned to rebuke the restive Jews and carelessly struck the rock instead of speaking to it. That "little" choice closed the door of his ministry, and he only saw but did not enter the land of promise. His earlier triumphs in his struggles could not save the situation. It was one failure too many (Num. 20:1-13; Deut. 3:23-28).
Even the Lord Jesus Christ suffered inner struggles. During his preparations for his ministry, he had to fight off the temptation to show his power "if" he was the Son of God. He was tempted to abandon the way of the cross and exchange the eternal glory that would bring for the painless, gregarious glory and honour of the kingdoms of this world (Luke 4:1-13).
A true walk with God is full of such experiences. Clearly, when one is in Christ, it is not only true that the "old things have passed away and the new has come" but also that part of the new that comes is this inner struggle to remain faithful!
The redemption story falls into two parts. The first part culminates in the second, which is the ultimate hope that we will be totally redeemed from sin, sorrow, pain and all evil and influences of the devil. We can be confident about this because heaven will contain only good and no evil, only God and no devil, only the Holy Spirit and souls made holy and no demons.
On the other hand, the first part of this redemption story has to do with the here and now on earth. Here, things are less clear-cut. The reason is that although God is in this world, so is the devil. Both the Holy Spirit and demons seek to influence human behaviour. There seem to be more people who do evil than there are people who do good. Those who are faithful are being made holy, but none of them is yet absolutely perfect.
Excerpted from The War Within by A. C. Chukwuocha Copyright © 2009 by A. C. Chukwuocha. Excerpted by permission.
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