Monday, March 25, 2013

We Must Overcome by God's Power AND Our Power

I once heard a sermonette in which the speaker said that one or more Church members talked with him about their problems with trying to overcome sin. They were not making the progress they wanted and expected. The sermonette speaker said he thought their problem was that they were trying to overcome by their own power, and instead they should rely on God's power to overcome sin.

But I thought this was a wrong way to put it.

The speaker talked about whose power we use to overcome sin as if it is a choice between our power or God's power, but not both. I think that is wrong. It sets us up for failure by giving us an excuse for failure. Our excuse is, "I prayed for God's help to overcome, but I still sinned, so He didn't help me." Thinking we overcome sin only by God's power is misleading because it omits our part which we have to do. Yes, we need God's help, but we also have to make the maximum effort ourselves. It is our power AND God's power, both, that enables us to overcome. Both, not either or.

We are free moral agents and we have to choose to resist sin, and we express that choice by the effort we make as well as by praying for God's help.

By ourselves, we may not have enough power to overcome particular habits and problems. We need the help and power of God's Holy Spirit. But we still have to do our part. God will not do everything for us. He will do for us what we cannot do ourselves provided we do the part that we are able to do. He does not necessarily make it easy for us.

We all know the greatest commandment is, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind" (Luke 10:27).

But also, we know that loving God means keeping His word and His commandments, or in other words, not sinning. "Jesus answered and said to him, 'If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father’s who sent Me" (John 14:23-24). "Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law" (Romans 13:10). "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments" (1 John 5:3).

The truth that loving God means obeying His commandments is a consistant message throughout the Bible.

So when God says we are to love Him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, He is really saying we are to obey His commandments with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, because obeying God's commandments is what love towards God is. There can certainly be an emotional aspect of loving God, but obedience must be part of that love or it is not really love.

In our modern English, the word "love" sometimes means something different to most people, and we can be confused by that. Our modern culture often thinks of "love" as just an emotion.

So let me rephrase the great commandment a bit, substituting the word "obey" (God's law and commandments) for the word "love", like this: "You shall OBEY the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind."

Now let me focus on one part of this: "You shall OBEY the Lord your God with all your strength."

And now, one more word to emphasize: "You shall OBEY the Lord your God with all YOUR strength."

We are to obey God, that is, resist temptation to sin, with all OUR strength.

Can we overcome sin alone, without God's help? No. Christ said, "...without Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).

We have to try as hard as we can, striving to obey God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, but rely on God for the extra power we need to do what we are not able to do with our own human strength alone. "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind" (2 Timothy 1:). God gives us the extra power we need by His Holy Spirit, but He wants to see us try as hard as we can and put forth maximum effort.

We are to STRIVE against sin. "You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin" (Hebrews 12:4).

An event in the life of Samson may help to illustrate how God's power and our power work together.

Samson was given the gift of great strength by God. It was God's power that gave Samson His strength, for no man could do what Samson did by human strength alone. But God removed that supernatural strength when Samson's hair was cut. After that, he only had normal human strength. You can read the whole story in Judges chapters 13 through 16.

But at the end of his life, Samson prayed that God would give him supernatural strength again, and God answered his prayer. "Then Samson called to the Lord, saying, 'O Lord God, remember me, I pray! Strengthen me, I pray, just this once, O God, that I may with one blow take vengeance on the Philistines for my two eyes!' And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars which supported the temple, and he braced himself against them, one on his right and the other on his left. Then Samson said, 'Let me die with the Philistines!' And he pushed with all his might, and the temple fell on the lords and all the people who were in it" (Judges 16:28-30).

Was it by God's power or Samson's own human strength that he brought down the Philistines' temple? If you answer, by God's power, you are partly right, probably 99% right. But part of that power was Samson's natural human strength, for he pushed "with all his might". Perhaps only 1% of the power that toppled the pillars came from Samson's muscles and 99% from God's miraculous power. Or maybe only one tenth of 1% of the power came from Samson's human strength. The point is, Samson gave everything he had. He didn't hold back. He didn't say, "Well, I can't do it by my power anyway, and since God has to do it, I will take it easy and push just a little bit - why strain myself?" No, whatever human strength Samson could contribute, HE USED IT ALL. God merely added the part Samson could not do and added that much miraculous power to push over the pillars.

God doesn't necessarily want our struggle against sin to be easy.

Jacob had to wrestle with Christ all night, and Christ even took "unfair" advantage by putting his hip out of joint (which must have been very painful). It was not really unfair, because God was teaching Jacob a lesson and perhaps testing him, but it certainly made it more difficult for Jacob. But Jacob would not give up, and in the end, God blessed him. But think of what a difficult trial this was for Jacob, the exhaustion, the muscle fatigue, the pain. Try wrestling with someone 8 or 10 hours straight.

We are to go all out against sin, making the maximum effort to resist temptation we can, even when we ask God for the extra help we need.

We are to avoid temptations, even to the point of giving up things we love because they tempt us to sin. Christ used the analogy of cutting off our hand or cutting out our eye if it causes us to sin (Matthew 5:29-30). Obviously, He is speaking figuratively - we are not to mutilate our bodies. But the analogy He uses illustrates how zealously and fervently we are to fight against sin, comparing it with cutting off parts of our body in terms of the mental sacrifices we may have to make.

We should certainly pray and ask God for help to overcome sin. But we should also go all out to do our part, resisting temptation with all our strength, even while we trust God to give us the help to do what we are not able to do, even when we try as hard as we can. And then we have to stick with it until we obtain the victory.

That is not an easy struggle, but eternal life is worth it.

For a related post in this blog, see "Do We Overcome Sin by Our Power or by God's Power?", which I published around the Days of Unleavened Bread two years ago.

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