In my copy of John Owen’s Mortification of Sin, J.I. Packer writes a stirring introduction. He suggests four things which today are insufficiently emphasized, causing modern readers to “suffer from the short-comings of much present-day Christian nurture” and therefore missing much of the significance in Owen’s work. These four things lacking in today’s writings and preaching are the holiness of God, the significance of motivating desire, the need for self-scrutiny, and the life-changing power of God. I believe Packer is right. I want to take a look at each of these in turn and relate them to my own experience with recovery.
The Holiness of God
Packer reminds us that the Puritans believed that holiness is the attribute of all God’s attributes. It is what distinguishes God from all of creation “making him different from us in our weakness, awesome and adorable to us in his strength, and a visitant to our consciences whose presence exposes and condemns sin within us.” When we down-play this, Packer reasons, we sentimentalize love and mercy, making God seem more like a kindly uncle than the One whom, when seen, caused Isaiah and John to come undone.
At the tail end of a relapse last year there was a seismic shift in my spirit that occurred while reading a commentary on Acts 5, the story of Ananias and Sapphira. You’ll recall these are the husband and wife who died after they lied to Peter about their profits from a piece of land they sold. The commentary was simple enough, stating the obvious from the text: When we lie to others, we lie to God. This is an affront to a holy God. The Holy Spirit used this simple truth to help me see (again) just what sort of God it is I am dealing with. If a lie to another person provoked such righteous judgment from God upon Ananias and Sapphira, how much more so would my habitual sexual sin? Who was I to assume that my sins, which were many, were not shutting me out of God’s presence and courting death at every turn? God is holy and calls his people to be holy. We will not and cannot see him if we do not agree with him in this. Our lack of emphasis on this today is to our detriment.
The Significance of Motivating Desire
Packer, and the Puritans before him, and Jesus before them, would remind us that it is not the outside of the cup that makes us clean but what is inside. Jesus cares about the desires we nurture within us, not just our actions. “Too often today,” Packer writes, “the moral life is reduced to role-play, in which prescribed and expected performance is everything and no attention is paid to the cravings, ragings, and hostilities of the heart so long as people do what is thought they should.” Owen takes us deeper than this externalism, insisting that it’s not just the bad habits that must be broken, but the sinful desires driving them.
I liken this to to the difference between sobriety and recovery. We have all heard the expressions “dry drunk,” meaning a person who is sober from drinking alcohol but still exhibits all the character defects that come with alcoholism. It is so easy to get caught up in doing the right thing – putting on a performance – that we overlook the most important part: the heart. Jesus promises to make us born again. As I’ve said elsewhere on this site, Jesus didn’t die to make us better; he died to make us new. This is good news! Our lack of emphasis on this today is to our detriment.
The Need for Self-Scrutiny
In both Scripture and Owen, much is said about the deceitfulness of one’s own heart. And yet, Christians today are slow to suspect themselves or each other of self-deception. Our self-ignorance leads us to “think well of one’s heart and life when God, the searcher of hearts, is displeased with both.” Owen would remind us to remain vigilant, always examining ourselves in light of what Scripture has to say in order that we might know which desires of ours need to be mortified.
Steps 4 and 10 are helpful guides in addressing this need (taking a moral inventory and continuing to take a daily, personal inventory). As such, people in recovery may have a leg up in this endeavor, as we are generally more aware than most of the deceitfulness of our own hearts and the lure of disordered loves within us. This flies in the face of the culture around us, though, even within much of the church. We are more likely to be encouraged to go after whatever our heart desires rather than be encouraged to search the Scriptures to see how that desire aligns with God’s word. Whether you have been walking with Christ for decades or are just getting started, we need to always remember that the enemy of our souls uses our desires to tempt us (James 1:4). Our lack of emphasis on this today is to our detriment.
The Life-Changing Power of God
Both Scripture and Owen taught that at the heart of salvation is a change of heart. There is a moral change that occurs by which the Holy Spirit induces Christlike attitudes and actions in us. There is an “expectation that Christians through prayer to Jesus would know deliverances from sinful passions in the heart,” and it is sad, Packer writes, “that today so little is heard about this.”
I’m am writing this just following Resurrection Sunday. As with every Easter, there are scores of articles written de-emphasizing (if not denying) the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus. With even this fundamental truth – the one of which without there would be no Christianity! – being cast aside as non-essential, is it any wonder that we fail to believe in a power able to overturn the kingdoms of our heart and make us new creations with new desires? The scriptures proclaim that the same power that raised Christ from the dead is at work within us. And yet, far too often in recovery we give more power to our addiction than we do the power of the blood. Our lack of emphasis on this today is to our detriment.
To conclude, my experience has been that where one or more of these elements are lacking in my life I am more susceptible to my hurts, habits, and hang-ups. But when I begin each day in awe of God’s holiness, aware of my motivating desires, become willing to scrutinize myself, and rely on the power of God to transform me inside-out, than I am far less likely to fall into sin and far more likely to grow in my desire to be like Christ.