It is possible to come here to this church, sit in these pews, read the Bible along with your pastor during the sermon, put money into the plate, bow your head and close your eyes when we have the prayer, hug one another during greeting time, have a Sabbath School quarterly and a Bible with many things underlined in both . . . and all the time those things are happening, you also love a certain sin? Is that possible?
Let me ask the question this way. Is it possible to love God—and I mean, really love Him—and also have a craving for something that you know pains the God you love so much? I think all of us sense that, yes, it is possible to be torn in two directions that way. Paul was torn. King David was torn. The disciples were torn. Tugged toward two paths: one leading to heaven and another leading to the selfish, destructive place where rebels end up.
A number of years ago, a national Christian magazine had a stunning article in it. A pastor wrote, detailing how for a period of several years, he had functioned both as a pastor and as a person addicted to illicit sexual experiences.
What did this involve? Well, first of all, an obsession with pornography. Magazines like Playboy, Penthouse, and more hard-core fare. Secondly, visits to strip clubs where nude dancers worked. And it even involved physical adultery; he was a regular customer of established call girls.
The difficult reality is that this pastor had the kind of ministry where there was a fair amount of travel, so there were frequent opportunities for this kind of sin to flourish and grow in his life.
I want to point out that this particular story came out before the Internet really began to flourish as a global phenomenon – and today, the problem of pastors becoming addicted to pornography is greater than ever. Some sociologists describe the triple temptation of what they call the “three A’s” —availability, affordability, and anonymity. With just a few mouse clicks, a lot of free porn is right there online, and if you use a credit card and are willing to have a few innocuous dollars get charged to an innocent-sounding account, all sorts of perversions and colorful temptations can come flooding into your study during the hours when no one is around.
But now back to this one particular pastor. Here is the ironic and painful point. This Christian minister did love God! He preached about God and in his heart he meant what he preached. He believed the principles of the Christian faith and he had surrendered his life, the best he knew how, to Jesus. If anyone ever knew about his own helplessness, it was this man, this pastor. He had a love for Jesus—and a love for this sexual addiction—and the two loves were trying to exist simultaneously. This miserable man was trying to manage an impossible co-existence. He hated his own hypocrisy, but seemed powerless to change.
This brings us to one of the most challenging discussions and debates that can exist in this process of becoming a born-again Christian. What does a person do when a love for Jesus and a desire for sin try to co-exist?
Now, this pastor’s case may seem like an extreme one, but, you know, that’s only because sins of a sexual nature seem worse to us than all the other ones. We in the clergy call this a “moral fall,” and as soon as we use that phrase, everyone knows that the seventh commandment is the one being referred to, but is adultery more of a fall than other kinds of commandment-breaking?
How many of us have tried to manage a co-existing love for Jesus with a love for money? A love for Jesus partnered up with pride? A love for Jesus and a habit of deception and dishonesty? A Christian faith that grappled with a chronic inability to stay in a Sabbath mode during the seventh day of the week? Every single one of us had felt this dilemma of trying to be on two sets of railroad tracks at the same time. So this is a very practical question.
All during this extended sermon series, we’ve been exploring this greatest of decisions. What does it mean to become a Christian? What does it mean to be a Christian on an ongoing daily basis? We still have several topics to go in this series, and I hope you’re sensing with me two things: first, what an exciting and life-changing subject this is, and also how four or five Sabbaths or four or five years simply aren’t adequate to this vital discussion. We’re simply scratching the surface.
And I especially want to invite you to be right here and join me in earnest Bible study as we conclude this series of studies over the next few weeks. Especially right now, I hope you’ll be able to continue on for the following messages, which help to add balance and perspective to this crucial issue. To hear just one day’s worth might leave you with some very incomplete perspectives. God’s promises to us in this area are very real and very rewarding, but what we find right here today in these next few minutes aren’t the whole gospel truth by any means. So when we say, “See you next Sabbath,” I especially mean it this week.
Let’s notice one thing right away. The Bible, always such a practical guidebook, recognizes that this two-track war is going to exist, even in the hearts of God’s believers. Especially in the hearts of God’s believers. Jesus Himself warned in the book of Matthew chapter six and verse 24: “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despite the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Initially, this seems to contradict my premise here—that we can actually feel torn between two masters! This pastor loved his glossy flesh magazines, and he also loved God. Others of us try to love both God and our 401k plans. Now, God-and-money is simply one of the many “double features” we humanly try to maintain. Jesus could just as easily have said, “You cannot serve both God and pride,” or “God and selfishness,” or “God and material possessions.” But the emphasis is this: in the long run, Jesus says, you can’t worship both at once. You cannot have a healthy relationship with God and with sin at the same time.
Here’s the hard question we want to address, not just today, but for the next few weeks: what does this mean for our struggling pastor friend? Here is a man who does love God! He really does! The things of the kingdom are attractive to him. The promises of the Bible are compelling; he accepts them as being true. But he struggles with this overpowering desire for something else at the same time.
In your life there may well be a love for God and a love for some other thing. You can’t serve both; you don’t want to serve both . . . but that’s exactly where you find yourself.
And do you know something? You’re in very good company. I already mentioned him, but as devout a believer as the Apostle Paul described feeling exactly this way himself. The whole chapter of Romans seven is a cry to the heavens about this very dilemma. Here’s verse 15: “I do not understand what I do,” he says. “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate . . . I DO!”
Now this is Paul writing! He’s a believer. He’s the king of preachers. He’s an apostle of Jesus and he had a dynamic encounter with the risen Lord there on the Damascus road. So he’s a fully born-again disciple. But in the very next verse, Romans 7:16, he admits: “I agree that the law is good.” If he didn’t think that the law was moral and right and useful, there wouldn’t be a conflict! This man knows that he’s acting against his own kingdom desires.
But down in verses 18 and 19 he restates his anguish, his problem: “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
Here it is in a nutshell: Loving God and having a love/hate struggle with sin at the very same time. There’s something in your life that you keep on doing. You have two masters right there in the living room with you and you know you can’t serve them both.
There are many, many people who come to church each week but still struggle having a love/hate relationship with liquor at the same time. They are drawn to their bottle of booze: they crave it and also hate how it makes them feel, how ashamed they are after each fall. It’s the same with a gambling addiction or with drugs or other compulsions.
Now, is this a pleasant experience? That pastor who wrote in to the Christian magazine was miserable! He was in agony! It was a living hell, being pulled in two directions that way. He felt ashamed and guilty all the time. And Paul is in misery as well. Listen to verse 24: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Well, before we go to the good news that does follow this verse, let’s pose the $64 million question. Are you still a Christian while this kind of war goes on? Are you saved or lost?
I’m going to gently tell you that the answer to that question is going to take us several Sabbaths together, so it’s not going to be what we call a “pat” or a flippant answer. It’s wonderfully good news—the answer to that question is an exciting one . . . but it’s an answer that takes us several weeks of diligent study to fully explore. Please, please—come here and join your brothers and sisters in Christ as we keep our Bibles open these next few weekends.
In order to discover biblical truth on this topic, let’s turn to a New Testament story found in the book of Mark. It’s found in chapter nine, and this is an experience that happens when Jesus and the 12 disciples have just arrived in Capernaum. Out of the blue, He asks them a question in verse 33: “What were you arguing about on the road?”
In the more familiar King James English, the probing question comes this way: “What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?”
I love the way Pastor Morris Venden brings this sorry little story to life in his book, To Know God: A Five-Day Plan. I imagine some of you have already read how he tells this saga. And this is the kind of question where the Questioner already knows the answer. Have you ever had that happen to you?
Your third grade teacher looks right at you when she asks: “Who broke the window?” Mom gives you a knowing look: “Where’d you leave your geometry book?” You know she knows where it was; that’s why she’s bringing it up! And when Jesus says to His disciples, “By the way, what were you fellows talking about back there?”, He already knows the answer, doesn’t He?
And the disciples don’t want to answer! There’s a long, awkward silence where no one says anything. They kind of kick their feet in the dust and look down at their wristwatches or out the window looking for UFOs. They probably think about giving Jesus a cover story along the lines of: “Oh, we weren’t talking about anything, really. Just . . . did we think the Steelers were going to repeat as Super Bowl champs next season.” But they couldn’t even come up with something like that. Verse 35 says: “But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” Here’s the King James rendition: “They held their peace.”
Now, I want to make two points about why these two verses have meaning for us today. First of all, these were the disciples of Jesus. Men who had given their lives to Jesus; they’d abandoned their livelihoods and left their relatives and surrendered everything in order to follow Jesus. These men were Christians, and they had been for three years now. In fact, these 12 men had preached the gospel and healed the sick and raised the dead. Unconverted people don’t do that! So they were converted believers.
That’s Point Number One.
But point Number Two is kind of sobering. These twelve men, even after three years of walking and studying with Jesus, still struggled with the sin of pride. Every single one of them was a Joe Biden wanna-be; they each still wanted to be vice president or prime minister or sergeant-at-arms or Chief Deputy Disciple in Charge of the Others. Each one of them harbored a desire to be Number One; in fact, two of them, James and John had specifically asked Jesus for that honor with a little bit of coaching from their Hollywood mom.
We can understand their craving, when we realize that Israel had struggled under the bondage of being ruled by Rome. And here was a young, charismatic leader who really looked like He might be able to take their nation all the way to independence. A throne was actually possible! Liberty beckoned! A man who could heal the sick and feed five thousand people at a time carried real potential within His amazing self. Who knows? If you hang around with Jesus and get close enough, when He steps up to be number one, you actually might end up being number two.
We all have heard stories about how some lowly person knew a Bill Clinton “way back when,” or a George W. Bush, or now a Barack Obama. All of a sudden, they’re catapulted to prominence when their chosen guy moves into the White House. And these disciples were not immune from the temptation to want to show off, to exalt themselves.
But these two Bible verses show us a sin that these disciples were committing. And it’s also obvious that they knew it was sin! They knew it was wrong to covet the top spot, to have a prideful, greedy, grasping nature. Why else would they hold back and walk real slow during the long walk to Capernaum and have this bitter little conversation out of the earshot of Jesus? The disciples of Christ wanted to indulge in this sin, in this favorite topic. So this was a knownsin, a deliberate sin, a planned sin, even an ongoing three-year sin.
Let me ask you, then. Is this Bible illustration relevant to our topic? Is it “on point,” as the lawyers say? Here you have born-again Christians, followers of Jesus, who are still committing sin. And not just committing sin, but deliberately committing that sin. They’re not slipping on banana peels and accidentally blurting out an isolated X-rated word. No, this is conscious, premeditated, calculated sin. This is a Bible story that exactly parallels the experience of our pastor friend who was committing the sin of adultery . . . except that pride is actually worse than adultery.
What does Jesus do about these twelve sinning Christians? Our continuing journey next Sabbath takes right into the heart of this conflict, but I want for each of us to notice today that Jesus stays with these fumbling, shallow Christians as they work their way through the dilemma of having two simultaneous loves. He doesn’t abandon them. He doesn’t throw them overboard. He doesn’t give up on Peter and James and John and the nine others. And that’s good news for you and me today as we slowly learn to love Jesus enough that our other desires fade away.
Shall we pray? Lord in heaven, all of us here do love you . . . and yet our human hearts are drawn toward the things of this world. We find ourselves wanting to have You and also our favorite transgressions. Father, thank You for understanding our human frailty, and thank You for not giving up on us. Thank You for not abandoning us. And also, thank You for revealing in Your Word a master plan to help each struggling Christian gain victory over sin by coming to love and cherish You more and more and more until the dawning of that perfect day. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
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