05 April 2017

Obedience Without Love - The Leaven of the Pharisees

"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing."

"Balaam obeyed God from a sense of its being right to do so, but not from a desire to please Him, not from fear and love.  He had other ends, aims, wishes of his own, distinct from God's will and purpose, and he would have effected these if he could.  His endeavour was, not to please God, but to please himself without displeasing God; to pursue his own ends as far as was consistent with his duty.

In a word, he did not give his heart to God, but obeyed Him, as a man may obey human law, or observe the usages of society or his country, as something external to himself, because he knows he ought to do so, from a sort of rational good sense, a conviction of its propriety, expediency, or comfort, as the case may be.

You will observe he wished to go with Balak's messengers, only he felt he ought not to go; and the problem which he attempted to solve was how to go and yet not offend God. He was quite resolved he would any how act religiously and conscientiously; he was too honourable a man to break any of his engagements; if he had given his word, it was sacred; if he had duties, they were imperative: he had a character to maintain, and an inward sense of propriety to satisfy; but he would have given the world to have got rid of his duties; and the question was, how to do so without violence; and he did not care about walking on the very brink of transgression, so that he could keep from falling over.

Accordingly he was not content with ascertaining God's will, but he attempted to change it.  He inquired of Him a second time, and this was to tempt Him. Hence, while God bade him go, His anger was kindled against him because he went.

This surely is no uncommon character; rather, it is the common case even with the more respectable and praiseworthy portion of the community. I say plainly, and without fear of contradiction, though it is a serious thing to say, that the aim of most men esteemed conscientious and religious, or who are what is called honourable, upright men, is, to all appearance, not how to please God, but how to please themselves without displeasing Him. I say confidently,—that is, if we may judge of men in general by what we see— that they make this world the first object in their minds, and use religion as a corrective, a restraint, upon too much attachment to the world.

They think that religion is a negative thing, a sort of moderate love of the world, a moderate luxury, a moderate avarice, a moderate ambition, and a moderate selfishness. You see this in numberless ways. You see it in the course of trade, of public life, of literature, in all matters where men have objects to pursue. Nay you see it in religious exertions; of which it too commonly happens that the chief aim is, to attain any how a certain definite end, religious indeed, but of man's own choosing; not, to please God, and next, if possible, to attain it; not, to attain it religiously, or not at all.

This surely is so plain that it is scarcely necessary to enlarge upon it. Men do not take for the object towards which they act, God's will, but certain maxims, rules, or measures, right perhaps as far as they go, but defective because they admit of being subjected to certain other ultimate ends, which are not religious.

Men are just, honest, upright, trustworthy; but all this not from the love and fear of God, but from a mere feeling of obligation to be so, and in subjection to certain worldly objects. And thus they are what is popularly called moral, without being religious.

Such was Balaam. He was in a popular sense a strictly moral, honourable, conscientious man; that he was not so in a heavenly and true sense is plain, if not from the considerations here insisted on, at least from his after history, which (we may presume) brought to light his secret defect, in whatever it consisted.

And here we see why he spoke so much and so vauntingly of his determination to follow God's direction. He made a great point of following it; his end was not to please God, but to keep straight with Him. He who loves does not act from calculation or reasoning; he does not in his cool moments reflect upon or talk of what he is doing, as if it were a great sacrifice. Much less does he pride himself on it; but this is what Balaam seems to have done.

I have been observing that his defect lay in this, that he had not a single eye towards God's will, but was ruled by other objects. But moreover, this evil heart of unbelief showed itself in a peculiar way, to which it is necessary to draw your attention, and to which I alluded just now in saying that the difficulties of Scripture often arose from the defective moral condition of our hearts."

John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons IV, 2

I might not be so stern as Newman may seem in this, without understanding the context for which he writes it.  Newman is not talking about the newly converted or the unbeliever on the cusp of their belief.  No, he is talking about those who would consider themselves established in their faith, having reached a certain status quo over the years in their spiritual development, but whose participation in faith has become only from a matter of social obligations, a sense of duty to the commandments, and the practical avoidance of punishment tempered by the expediency in serving themselves.

I say this as I do because I would encourage the unbeliever, and those who are weak in faith, to strengthen themselves by obedience first, as an act of will reaching out to God, acting in faith as though faith had been already granted, while praying to God that faith may indeed be given them, that they may accept it willingly, and that it may grow and take root in their hearts and their daily lives.

In other words, God may not always choose to storm the castle of our souls with the full power of faith, as He had done with the apostle on the road to Damascus, striking him blind first in order that he might see. But rather in some many other instances as it pleases Him, we must, with His encouragement, open the ramparts we build around ourselves and surrender our hearts to Him first, so that He may come into our lives and cleanse us with His grace.  Then over time He may help us to grow and prosper with the gifts of the Spirit in a righteous life.

These varying instances are described in the parable of the seed, some of which fell on hard ground, among the thorns, and some others in fertile soil.

No, the problem Newman addresses here is with those long time believers who have grown in the faith, and may exhibit many of its gifts, but stop there without bearing the kind of fruit of which they are capable.

And why do they do this?  Simply because they never grow to fully love Him and His, more than they love their own fears, desires, and selves. They always hold some better portion of themselves back and in reserve.   They love God as they think that they must only in order to avoid punishment and to be comfortable, while being blinded to their own sinful shortcomings, never fully growing into the love which is the substance and the salvation of their true selves.

And in the worst cases, they become self-righteous, being proud in their gifts and their selection as they think it in their own minds.  They may even harbor private hatreds, sins against the Spirit, judging others and seeing admonitions to take up the cross of His obedience with love as intended for all those others, but not for themselves.  They are imbued with the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy and spiritual pride.  And it is the road to a dwindling of the spiritual life, and a gradual erosion of faith as a vital element of our every action.

Perfection in the spirit is not a destination to be reached in this world, it might be added. The holier we may become, the greater the trials it seems. If we do not constrain ourselves, He constrains us as we would wish if we were wise, as Newman said.

We cannot segment ourselves and consider the love of God to be just another in the various priorities of our life to be fulfilled, like paying the least amount of taxes and doing the least work to obtain the greatest financial rewards. No, if we hold back and do what only we think is required because it will benefit us, then it is no love at all and no true obedience. And our decline and fall into the worst kind of sin, an insult to the Spirit with hypocrisy, is almost certain given the weaknesses of ourselves and the slow and deadly path of moral compromises which the world inflicts upon the worldly.

I do not think anything could have been made more clear to us.  And yet it is one of the greater sources of our troubles, as least from what I have observed in myself, for I certainly do not exclude myself in any of this.  Do not think that for a minute.  Many times I wonder if I am writing this for others, or just scolding and reminding myself of my own shortcomings.

Not all that many years ago I thought myself to be quite the good person, never having committed any major sins, giving to God what I thought He required, donating money and going to church, trying never to hurt anyone purposely, and to honest and sincere in all my dealings. But it was that, and no more.  I was blinded by my ambition and the opportunity for worldly rewards and success.

One day about fifteen years ago I decided to adopt a different kind of life, and spend more time with my family by working from home, as I had been traveling abroad for so many years I did not want to grow apart from them.  And I also committed to the contemplation of all the things I had done and learned and read about in my fifty years.

And for some happy reason, which I do not attribute to my own good sense, I chose to put aside most worldly things, and lead 'a life hidden in God'.  And to this end I put aside many externalities of worldly ambition and associations, and went into a more private and simpler life of work and prayer.

And I prayed God to show me my sins, so that I might repent of them now while there was time to do so, and with His help to change my ways.  And I assure you that He has not, even to this day, completed that task. Such is my monumental blockheadedness that I erred so much and so often, not out of a malicious or greedy impulse of which I was fortunate in my character, but in not seeing the things that I had done, carelessly, and what I had been doing slowly but surely to myself.  And in the end I was serving my own ambitions which I mistakenly took for His commands from the parable of the talents.

This was how blinded and lost I had been.  I was fulfilling what was required of me, but no more. And I was blinded to my errors, and excused them, made exceptions.  And even now I see how I fall short in so many ways, always falling, and having to ask His help to pick myself up again and move forward, in fear and trembling.  For the power of the world is great, and I am just a sinner.

But I know in my heart who I love, and that I want to be a part of that love forever, forsaking all else, all material stature and advantage which I now see as a falsehood and thin veneer over a slow demise. And so I have chosen, and struggle on to that outcome, one day at a time.  And this is how it is and how it will be for all who have chosen that way.  Love is our destination, yes, but here on earth it can only be a way of life to us, as we struggle on as best we can, to a final holy rest and peace at the last.
"No one is able to serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and he will love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and he will despise the other.  You are not able to serve both God and mammon."
Need little. Want less. Love more.