Obstacles to Grace
Rev. Lynn Malone
Toby Keith has a popular song right now that I have heard several people walk around either singing or humming the words. The song is entitled I Want to Talk About Me. Have you heard it? The words to the chorus go like this:
I wanna talk about me
Wanna talk about I
Wanna talk about number one
Oh my me my
What I think, what I like, what I know, what I want, what I see
I like talking about you, usually, but occassionally
I wanna talk about me
I wanna talk about me.
We snicker because we know from the rest of the song that Keith is singing about his talkative girlfriend, and sometimes, just sometimes, he would love to talk about himself. But the words of the chorus capture in a compelling way the prevailing sentiment in our culture today. It is all about me!
Hi. My name is Lynn Malone, and I am talking today about Obstacles to Grace. Obstacles to grace are those cunning ways we have of letting the priority of self get in front of the priority of God-with-us. In essence, this is a talk about sin.
But what is sin? For many of us, sin may be hard to define, and in the world we live in today, we don’t like to talk about sin too much. After all, one person’s sin is another person’s pleasure, and who am I to judge. Just live and let live. That’s the motto of the age. But can we really deny that sin exists in our world, and if sin exists in our world, there is the distinct possibility that sin exists in my life. Therefore, I must pause to answer the question in a real way. The Bible says in 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and refusing to accept the truth.” John also goes on to say that “if we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts” (1 John 1:10). So, what is sin?
The word used in the New Testament most often for sin is actually an archer’s term. When an archer would shoot an arrow and the arrow failed to hit its intended target, it was hamartia. The archer “missed the mark.” Sin is missing the mark. Anytime we fail to enjoy the loving relationship God has intended for us, we miss the mark. We sin. Whenever we abuse the created order that God has established, we sin. Whenever we reject the grace of God in our lives, or when we fail to see the potential God has placed within us, we sin. Whenever we choose our own will over the will of God for our lives, we sin. We put ourselves at the center of our own little universe. Everything revolves around me, around my wants, around my needs, we sin. We move ever so easily to the center of our own universe. All our decisions and all our relationships are dependent upon what we want or think. The most destructive factor in any relationship, especially our relationship with God, is self-centeredness. This is the essence of “missing the mark.”
We really don’t have to look far to know that sin surrounds us. The abuse and neglect of children and the elderly. Corruption in business and government, and even in the church are vivid examples of how easily sin can ensnare us. If we feel distant from God, that is a result of sin. Perhaps not our own, but maybe even someone else’s, for we do not live in a vacuum, and what we do affects other’s lives, and what others do affects our lives. Even the neighborhood bully, or for many of you, the overbearing boss, can be an example of sin in our midst. The abuse of power by one person over another is an example of sin. It is not God’s design for his creation, and it is sin. Sin is all around us, and it is an obstacle to grace.
Throughout our lives we have become experts at erecting barriers between ourselves and God. The barriers we erect, or obstacles, if you will, prevent us from receiving God’s love. Other priorities, and even other relationships, can hinder our relationship with God, and simply put, this talk is about how we block God’s love in our lives.
So how do we sin? I mean, I haven’t killed anyone, or abused anyone, or lied or cheated or stolen. What are those obstacles that block God’s grace? Well, the first obstacle to grace is ignorance. We alienate ourselves from God and others unknowingly. Without understanding what sin is we cannot know what can potentially separate us from God, and we are unwittingly defeated. We must acknowledge sin’s existence, and be constantly seeking ways of overcoming sin to enjoy the relationship God desires with us.
Ignorance notwithstanding, there are other ways that we engage in sin, or at the very least, open the door for sin to enter our lives. First, the situations we find ourselves in can entice us and lure us into sin. What do I mean? Let me give you two biblical examples. The first is David. 2 Samuel 11 tells the story of David’s great sin of adultery with Bathsheba. As the events unfold, we are told that it is the time of year when kings and armies go out to war. David’s army, led by Joab, went out to war with Ammonites. Verse 1 introduces David’s situation: “But David stayed behind in Jerusalem.” David was in an unexpected place, at an unexpected time. But it gets worse. Verse 2 tells us David got out of bed after taking a nap, went out on the roof of the palace that overlooked the city, and what did he see but beautiful Bathsheba bathing in the court below. David put himself in a situation, and because of his position, or because of his desire for pleasure, he gave in to the temptation of the situation. But David’s sin didn’t stop with his sin with Bathsheba. It went further to a cover-up of her pregnancy, and a conspiracy, and eventually murder of Bathsheba’s husband. All because he was in an inappropriate situation.
The second person I want to introduce you to is Martha. You remember Martha? She had a sister named Mary and a brother named Lazarus, and some guy named Jesus was always hanging out at their house. One evening when Jesus and the gang showed up (Luke 10:38-42), and Martha, being the gracious host, welcomed them into her home. She immediately began to fret about being the gracious host, and she started preparing dinner. She hustled around worrying about all the preparations while her sister Mary just sat and listened to Jesus. Every time Martha made a pass through the room, her blood pressure rose just a little bit more until finally, she felt the situation demanded her attention. “Hey Jesus, don’t you think Mary should be helping me? Here I am doing all the work, and she just sits there and listens to you.” Jesus gingerly reminded Martha that Mary had found the most important thing in life, and he wasn’t about to take it away from her. The situation Martha found herself in led her to focus on what she needed, and it erected a barrier between her and Jesus, and her and her sister, Mary. Situations can tempt us and entice us to sin.
Another way that sin enters our lives is through evasion. You know what evasion is, don’t you? Avoiding doing something you know you should do. The Apostle James tells us it is sin to know what you ought to do and not do it (James 4:17). When we see a person in need, and we know we can meet the need and we chose not to, it is sin.
Yet another way that we sin is through laziness. An old mountaineer and his wife were sitting in front of the fireplace one evening, just whiling away the time. After a long silence, the wife said: “Jed, I think it’s raining. Get up and go outside and see.”
The old mountaineer continued gazing absently at the fire, then sighed and said, “Aw, Ma, why don’t we just call in the dog and see if he’s wet.” Sometimes we simply don’t make the effort to minister to the needy, or reach out to the lonely, or attempt to be reconciled to that person we had the falling out with. Our years as couch potatoes has made us lazy when it comes to responding to God’s voice.
Another way we sin is factual. What do I mean? We plead ignorance. We say we didn’t know it was a sin, and we think that relieves us of our responsibility. Hardly!
Another very compelling way we sin is through our habits. We have all developed bad habits at sometime in our lives. We may in fact be living with some of those bad habits now. Those bad habits separate us from God. Habits like gossip. Yes, gossiping is a habit, and it can be broken.
Our attitude is another way we sin. The attitude that there is plenty of time to worry about heaven, or to work in God’s kingdom can keep us from a fulfilling relationship with God. C. S. Lewis, in his wonderful work The Screwtape Letters, has an interesting conversation between Wormwood and his uncle, Screwtape. Wormwood is a fledgling demon given his first task of causing a new Christian convert to stumble. Screwtape is a master demon given charge of his young nephew to ensure his success. The entire book is the questions and advice exchanged between Wormwood and Screwtape. In one letter from Screwtape to Wormwood, the old uncle advises his young charge that the surest way to keep the convert’s mind off the “enemy” (meaning God) is to make him believe there is plenty of time. Our attitude can keep us from a fulfilling relationship with God.
Time is another way we sin. We fill our schedules with so many things, and then we fill our children’s schedules with so many things, that when it comes to building a relationship with God, we claim, “I just don’t have time for that.” We don’t have time to read the Bible, or to serve as a leader or facilitator in Sunday school or small group, or serve on a mission team. The reality is our whole life can be an expression of our relationship with God.
Then there is the reality of evil. We do not believe that there is a demon behind every tree or under every rock, but we do confess to the presence of evil in our world. The devil is real, and his greatest weapon is deception. The Apostle Peter says that Satan “prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for some victim to devour.” Evil can deceive us, and cause us to sin.
We have mentioned seven ways that we can sin. If we take the first letter of each means, we form an acronym that spells SELF-HATE. Sin so easily traps us because we don’t love ourselves. We may feel unlovable, and that makes us believe that God cannot love us either. That is self-centered thinking, and we must overcome that if we are to ever overcome sin.
How do I do that? I hear you asking that question now. First, realize that you are loved. God loves you. Hear John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes on him will not perish but have eternal life. God gave because God loved, and the “everyone” he loves includes you and me. Accepting God’s love for you is the first step in overcoming the obstacles to grace.
Secondly, we must repent of our own sinfulness. Jesus’ first kingdom message was for the people to “repent for the kingdom of God is near” (Mark 1:15). Repentance is not feeling really sorry for what you have done, but is rejecting what you have done, and the attitudes that led you to do those things. It is literally turning around and going in the opposite direction.
Then, prayer is a key to our overcoming sin. What prayer does is bring us into God’s presence, and places God at the center of our lives. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Life was intended to be lived from the center, not at the center.” Prayer replaces the “I” at the center of our lives.
Mortification is another way we overcome sin. This is simply dying to ourselves. What we want is no longer important. Mortification is denying the self. Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). The way of Christ is the way of self-denial, and if we are to overcome sin, it will be through dying to ourselves so we might rise to live for Christ.
Another key to overcoming sin is spiritual direction. A spiritual director is someone who knows who we are, warts and all, and accepts us and loves us with God’s love. Are you committed to overcoming sin? Find that friend who you can be painfully honest with. But not just anyone. Someone who has walked with God, and knows the path that lies ahead. Let that person walk the journey with you until you have found the path and can then lead others along yourself. For we cannot walk alone, and the certainty is that we will never conquer the obstacles to God’s grace alone. We need each other. We are created for community, and we draw strength from one another as we share joys and burdens along life’s journey.
So tell me? Is it really possible to live a sinless life? Can I really overcome sin? Not if you do it alone. We can’t do it without God in our lives. We can’t do it without God’s grace filling us and loving us. And we can’t do it without others. God is longing to give us a life full of love and grace. He gave us his Son, Jesus Christ to be the model, and he sent his Holy Spirit to empower us and lead us into that deep, abiding love relationship he has reserved for us.
When the Holy Spirit fills our lives we begin to sing a new song. But it will not be a song centered on ourselves. It won’t be I Want to Talk About Me. Rather the song of our lives will be this:
I’m coming back to the heart of worship,
And it’s all about you,
All about you, Jesus.
I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it.
When it’s all about you.
All about you, Jesus.
Overcome the obstacles to grace through love of God and the power of his Holy Spirit.