Deprived of our crutches
Our circumstances do not make us sin. They simply reveal the sin that is already present in our hearts. They give it opportunity, or strip away our social barriers, or decrease our emotional resiliency, and a fuller measure of our wickedness is suddenly on display.
Three quarters of a year before our wedding, Jaimie began struggling with clinical depressions – depression that became increasingly severe over the course of the next twelve months, until at one point she let me know that she was struggling with thoughts of hurting herself, of not wanting to live anymore. She is, praise God, in a vastly different state emotionally now, some two years later.
Along the way, though, I began to recognize that while her struggle with depression certainly made for difficult circumstances, it was no in way responsible for my sin in those circumstances. When I was harsh or impatient or ungracious with her, and even when I quietly stewed on how this wasn’t what I had wanted or how I was sick of doing the dishes because the thought overwhelmed her, I was responsible for my sin. More than that: I alone was responsible for my sin. No matter what we were facing, my response highlighted only the state of my own heart.
Each of tends to blame our sin on our circumstances, this is nonsense – and we all know it, but none of us want to admit it. Which is easier, to say, “I couldn’t help it; I was just so stressed out that I slipped” or to admit, “You know, I was extremely stressed, and it showed that deep down, I really am like this.” Admitting that we are not so sanctified as we might hope is painful enough; confessing that we are not so sanctified as we wish others to think we are is even harder.
A friend of mine and I were recently talking through some issues in our lives in what proved to be a really productive conversation for both of us. Along the way, he noted that he can sometimes use one of his gifts not simply for the glory of God but for the approbation of others. As I thought on that comment, I realized: we all do that, and not only with our gifts. We do it with our holiness, too. Often, we are not living in a holy way because we recognize the joy it is to reflect the character of God in our lives, but because we want the affirmation of other Christians.
Praise God, then, for circumstances that deprive us of our many emotional crutches. When we are forced to deal with emotional fatigue or circumstances that push us to our limits, our hearts’ true state is revealed. Will we respond in hostility to others’ foibles when we are tired, or will we respond graciously? We will be kind to our spouses when they are doing one of those many little things that are morally neutral but irritating, or will we demean them? Will we be patient with our children when they are simply being children, or will we vent our tempers at them? Will we receive criticism humbly or will we be defensive?
One of the real measures of our sanctification is what we do in those moments of exhaustion or trial. We all face the temptation to sin. Not one of us goes a day without opportunities to choose whether we will be godly or ungodly. The two great struggles of the Christian life are recognizing that we do indeed have a choice whether or not to sin, and then exercising that choice.
Even when we have recognized that we are not the helpless victims of sin that we make ourselves out to be, this second step remains. We must, in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, say no to sin when it comes knocking on our door. When Jaimie says something that annoys me, even when she says something truly rude, I have in that moment an opportunity to be a picture of Christ for her, or to indulge my sin. By the grace of God, all of us increasingly choose holiness – real holiness, honoring God in our hearts and not simply seeking the approval of other believers – instead of sin. And we learn to thank God for the trials that expose how far we have to go yet.