Cut It Out

Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

Matthew 18:7-9

If something in your life causes you to sin, cut it out of your life. Even if something doesn’t cause you to officially “sin” but just causes a sense of being slimed by the uncleanness of the world, remove that from your life as well. Jesus wanted all of His disciples, including us, to be serious about removing contaminations from our life.

When priests would enter the outer court of the Temple, they would sacrifice animals on the altar. The blood of the animals would temporarily cleanse them from sin. But then they went over to the bronze wash basin where they would wash with water. This action wasn’t about cleansing intentional sin but about removing “uncleanness.” This was about removing the unintentional contamination that inevitably gets on us just by living in a fallen world.

What we hear will become what we speak. What are you listening to? If what you hear from music, podcasts, talk radio, or gossipy co-workers negatively impacts your heart, stop listening to it! Cut it out of your life.

What we see will become what we think about. What are you looking at? If what you are watching on Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime, YouTube, your computer screen, or your phone negatively impacts your spiritual health, stop watching it! Cut it out of your life. It doesn’t have to officially be labeled “sin” to fill your heart and mind with things that are not good for you. If it is junk food for your soul, then it will still have a negative impact on your life with Christ.

Jesus used severe language to tell us to remove the contamination from our life as a way to let us know how important this is. Jesus intentionally used violent and graphic imagery as a way to get our attention. Stop messing around with sin. Sin is not something to be toyed with. Treat sin as the radioactive element that it really is.

In the Kingdom of God, strength and weakness are defined differently. It’s not a sign of strength to watch something we shouldn’t be watching and then claim that it won’t affect us. That’s weakness. Real strength is when we admit that watching that or listening to that will cause our mind to go places it shouldn’t go. Watching that will cause my mind to be saturated in lust (over-sexualized shows), or fear (horror movies), or anger (news programs), or despair (sad movies), so I’d rather cut it out of my life than have to battle against those things later in my thoughts. That is real strength in the Kingdom.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9

What is God telling you that you need to cut out of your life?

Lord of All Creation

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

“Yes, he does,” he replied.

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”

“From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

Matthew 17:24-27

What’s the point of recording this interaction with Jesus? I believe there are lessons to be learned here as Jesus acts out a parable of sorts.

This isn’t just about paying taxes. This is about sonship. Jesus is the Son of God, so He is completely except from any and all taxes. When the Ultimate King is your Father, you don’t pay taxes. As for any king, the children are exempt.

Yet, I believe Jesus is pointing to a greater truth. As sons and daughters of the King of Kings, we too are exempt. But our exemption is about sin. Jesus paid the price for our sin so that we don’t have to pay the price. Jesus’s death and resurrection made us children of God. Our faith in Jesus is how we entered the family. Faith in Jesus is how we received and accepted our adoption papers. Now, as sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, we are exempt from having to pay the price of sin.

Then we learn that Jesus doesn’t pay the tax because He has to; He pays the tax because He doesn’t want to offend the tax-collector. To show the disciples and the Temple tax-collectors that Jesus is Lord of all creation, He gets creative with how He gets the money for the tax.

He sends his fisherman disciple, Peter, to catch a fish. The first fish Peter catches will have a single coin in its mouth, a shekel worth four drachma. I think it is significant that Peter doesn’t find two coins each worth two drachma. Instead, Peter finds a four-drachma coin.

The number four throughout the Bible represents God’s creation (four corners of the earth, four winds, four seasons). So, Peter finds a four-drachma coin. Jesus is saying that He is Lord of all creation even in the way He pays His Temple tax! In order to orchestrate a fish having the exact needed coin in its mouth for paying two people’s Temple tax, and to have Peter catch that exact fish, He would have to be Lord of all creation.

Creation must obey Jesus if He commands it to do something. We see this truth on display in this story and in many others–the wind and waves (Matthew 8:26-27), the fig tree (Matthew 21:19-21), the miraculous catch of fish (John 21:6), etc. This same principle also applies to every physical healing Jesus ever did. When He commands the body to be healed, it must obey.

Jesus is Lord of all creation!

Still Did Not Repent

The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.

Revelation 9:20-21

In the midst of recording all of the horrible things that come upon the earth, John notes that there are still many who will not repent. I find it interesting, out of all the things that could be listed as the main sins of humanity, John sees these five things in his vision.

First, the sin of worshiping false idols is at the top of the list. The idols themselves can’t see, hear or walk. They are just statues made of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood. They are nothing in and of themselves. But worshiping them is worshiping demons. Why? Because demonic entities always stand behind false idols.

The apostle Paul makes this same point to the Corinthians when he said, “Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons”(1 Corinthians 10:19-20).

The bottom line is that any religion that worships anything but Jesus as God in the flesh, Son of God and Savior of the world, is worshiping a false idol. Standing behind their false religion is the worship of a demonic principality.

Next, John lists four more sins that humanity is steeped in that, while he expected humanity to repent from, they continue in without hesitation: 1)murder, 2)magic arts (occult practices), 3)sexual immorality, and 4) theft (greed). Look at any major American city that is being eroded from the inside out, and you will find these four sins rampant within its boundaries.

Where you find one if these in abundance you will also find the others in abundance. Murder rates soar; sexual immorality is the norm; people seek out psychics, palm readers, seances, reiki healing, and mediums instead of the Lord; corruption and greed define the economic climate of our day.

God’s patience and kindness with our sin is meant to lead us to repentance. The call to repentance is an invitation into freedom, freedom from all of these dark chains that can bind our life. Yet, one day will be the last day. One day God will set everything right in the world. One day He will bring judgment on the world. One day evil will be finally and ultimately dealt with. Until that day, we are called to live a lifestyle of repentance and work toward a world that looks more like the Kingdom of God and less like the kingdom of darkness.

Overcoming Shame

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. 

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Genesis 3:7-12

Have you ever noticed that humanity swings from shame and guilt about sin to pride and blame about the same sin? We see it start all the way back in the Garden of Eden, and it is still happening today.

Here’s the pattern:

  1. We sin.
  2. We feel guilt about sin. Instead of surrendering to conviction and repentance, shame begins to tell us we are our sin. Shame makes us want to hide.
  3. Then we reach a breaking point with shame and we realize we can’t hide anymore.
  4. Instead of repenting, we pridefully embrace our sin (essentially agreeing with shame that we are our sin) Instead of hiding, we are proud of it. We stop calling it sin. We call it our identity.
  5. We blame others for making us feel ashamed in the first place.

This is the pattern we see with Adam in the Garden. As a pastor I have seen this pattern play out over and over again in every possible sin you can image. Can you see it? Let me give an example. Promiscuity:

  1. We sleep around.
  2. We feel guilt about our sin. But instead of surrendering to conviction and repentance, shame begins to tell us we are our sin. We begin to believe we are promiscuous. That is who we are. Shame makes us want to hide.
  3. Then we reach a breaking point with shame and we realize we can’t hide anymore.
  4. Instead of repenting, we pridefully embrace our sin (essentially agreeing with shame that we are our sin) Instead of hiding, we are proud of it. We stop calling it sin. We call it our identity but with a new name. We call it sexual freedom.
  5. We blame others for making us feel ashamed in the first place. We attack the purity culture and anyone that would disagree with a lifestyle of multiple sexual partners. We call them oppressive and repressive.

We see this same pattern in the LGBTQ community. We see this same pattern with those who battle addiction. I’ve seen men do this when they get caught in infidelity. Over and over again, humanity seems to do the same thing in response to shame.

But the problem is that changing the definition of sin in order to identify with it doesn’t get rid of shame; it partners with shame. Pridefully embracing our sin so as to not feel ashamed anymore is like putting a hard cast over an infected wound. We think we are throwing off the shackles of shame, but really we are just burying it under a thick layer of pride.

You see, shame and pride are both saying the same thing. They are saying, “You are your sin.” Shame calls sin what it really is whereas pride gives sin a new, friendly name. But both declare the same thing, “You are this thing and you will never be anything else.”

This is not how we throw off the shackles of shame! We were never meant to live in shame. We are not our sin! That is not who we are, it is something we’ve done. It is no longer our identity.

To truly get free from shame, we need to repent of our sin and embrace who God says that we are in Christ. We need to hear His words of love and affirmation for us even while we embrace His words of conviction about our sin. When we call sin what it really is, when we name it and reject it as a part of our identity, and when we receive our true identity in Christ, shame has no place to plant its evil roots in our life.

Paul explains it like this:

Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Embracing your sin as your identity will not get rid of shame. It simply covers it with pride. Just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” the same is true of shame. Pride cannot drive out shame; only finding your identity in Christ can do that. Repentance opens us up to receive the perfect love of the Father and hear Him speak to us about who we really are in His eyes.

Holiness & Social Justice

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:27

Throughout church history there have been different streams that have all made up the river that is orthodox Christian faith. Richard Foster, in his book Streams of Living Water, names six main streams of the Christian tradition:

  1. The Contemplative Tradition: The Prayer-filled Life
  2. The Holiness Tradition: The Virtuous Life
  3. The Charismatic Tradition: The Spirit-Empowered Life
  4. The Social Justice Tradition: The Compassionate Life
  5. The Evangelical Tradition: The Word-Centered Life
  6. The Incarnational Tradition: The Sacramental Life

As denominations in the Church formed, they usually formed around one or two of these streams. We have also seen different streams wake up to the reality of the other streams and begin to try to rediscover them within their own context. Yet, there also seem to be streams that have a difficult time existing together in the same person or the same denomination.

Two streams that have often had difficulty existing together are the Holiness and Social Justice traditions. The Holiness tradition is interested in a life of purity and a life of obediently resisting temptation. God is holy, and we are to imitate Him. It is a tradition that focuses on decontaminating the life of the Christian from the sinful muck of the world.

Yet, the Social Justice tradition wants to jump straight into the muck of the world as a way of trying to bring hope and life to it. This tradition isn’t as concerned with personal sin as it is with corporate and social sin–systems of evil and injustice.

Where both of these traditions agree is that there is a line to be drawn between good and evil, they just draw them in different places. The Social Justice tradition draws the line between good and evil “out there” in the systems and structures of society. The Holiness tradition, however, draws the line between good and evil “in here,” right down the middle of our own hearts.

The Social Justice tradition says, “We are the problem,” and if it’s not healthy can end up saying, “They are the problem.” The Holiness tradition says, “I am the problem,” and if it’s not healthy can end up saying, “You are the problem.”

Yet, this passage in James 1 doesn’t let us divide these traditions. This passage demands that we hold them together in tension. We must look after orphans and widows, the forgotten and marginalized (Social Justice tradition), and we must also keep ourselves from being polluted by the world (Holiness tradition).

Jesus was a beautiful example of all six traditions flowing together. Jesus touching a person with leprosy is a good metaphor for the Holiness and Social Justice traditions flowing together. Typically this action should have made Jesus unclean, but instead we see Jesus’s own “cleanness” end up “contaminating” the leprosy and healing it. Rather than the illness making Him sick, His divine health made the sick person well.

When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.

Matthew 8:1-3

This is what we are called to do ourselves. We are called to enter the messy muck of the world and yet not become “unclean.” The apostle Paul gives good instruction about this very thing to the Galatians:

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 

Galatians 6:1

We are to reach out to those being trafficked and prostituted without falling into the sins of lust, manipulation, or paternalism. We are to reach out to the material poor without adopting a poverty mindset, a savior complex, or falling into the kind of materialism that only addresses the physical needs. We are to reach out to LGBTQ community with love and compassion without affirming same-sex romantic relationships. We are to seek and pray for physical healing for those who are facing physical illness and disorders of the body without sending the message that they are somehow “less than” because of the condition that they face.

These are the many tensions we face as we try to hold the Holiness and Social Justice traditions (as well as the Evangelical and Charismatic traditions) in tension together. It would certainly be easier to just pick one stream and try to do that one while ignoring the others. But scripture, and this passage in James in particular, doesn’t give us that option. Jesus embodied all the streams and so must we.

Everything That Hinders

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. 

Hebrews 12:1-2

Most Christians understand that sin can easily entangle us as we run our race of faith. Sin wraps like cords around our ankles tripping us up and keeping us from running. These cords of sin must be severed from our life or our faith will limp along unfruitful. Most of us have experienced this reality and know this all too well.

But what is sometimes missed is that there are things in life that are not sinful but can still be a hindrance. The passage of scripture above calls us to throw off everything that hinders. Because these things are not overt sin, they can fly under the radar of our lives. They are not like the cords of sin, tripping us up, but they do have a dampening effect on our faith.

We see the same reality represented in how the priests worshiped in the Temple. They would offer sacrifices on the altar in order to address sin. The sacrifices were about atonement for sin with blood. But then the priests would walk over to the wash basin–made of bronze mirrors–and wash with water. This washing wasn’t about being cleansed from sin but about getting the “uncleanness” off of them.

There are things that we read, things we listen to, and things we watch that aren’t necessarily sinful but do end up dulling our sensitivity to the Spirit. Likewise, there are habits of distraction and escape that aren’t sinful but lull us into a passive faith and trap us into keeping our minds on the things of the world rather than on things above (Colossians 3:2). These things gradually contaminate our mind and our heart if we continue to expose ourselves to them. These are the hindrances that need to be thrown off. These are the “unclean” things that need to be washed off.

Paul says it this way to the Corinthians:

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.

1 Corinthians 10:23

If we are going to run with perseverance and “not grow weary and lose heart”(Hebrews 12:3), we need to run light. In other words, we can’t run with unnecessary things weighing us down. It could be our interaction on social media or our relationship with food or alcohol. It could be our favorite way to escape that becomes a bad habit. Whatever it is, if it is a hindrance to our sensitivity and intimacy with the Jesus and the Holy Spirit, it needs to be thrown off.

Unbelievable Unbelief

So, as the Holy Spirit says:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the wilderness,

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

Hebrews 3:7-8, 12-13

In God’s Kingdom, unbelief causes us not to be able to enter in. For that first generation of Israelites, unbelief caused them not to be able to enter the Promised Land. So they wandered in the desert until a new generation emerged. Speaking of this unbelieving generation of Israelites, the writer of Hebrews says, “So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief” (Hebrews 3:19).

How do we get to this place of unbelief?

First, sin begins to lie to us about ourselves and about God. Sin either makes us feel shame and guilt–which makes us want to separate ourselves from God–or begins to make us feel like God is holding out on us. In the end, sin, if not repented of quickly, begins to erode our trust in God. Our doubts begin to creep in and God no longer seems trustworthy. This is “sin’s deceitfulness.”

This then leads to a hardening of our hearts. Thick walls of doubts and deception begin to form around our hearts as a means to protect it. If we are in relationship with someone (a spouse for instance) and they don’t seem trustworthy anymore, then we build defensive walls around our hearts in order not to get hurt. We do the same with God.

These walls–this hardening of the heart–form a stronghold in our feeling and thinking. Strongholds are fortifications of intricate lies that have been woven together. We are lied to by the enemy and told that these strongholds will keep hurt out. But what they keep out are things like faith, trust, hope and experiencing the love of the Father.

People say, “I just can’t feel God anymore” and they make the statement as if it is some indictment against God…as if He somehow distanced Himself from them. But this confession is a self-indictment about the self-protective walls we’ve allowed to surround and harden our hearts.

Unbelief is sin. Unbelief is rebellion. Unbelief is a choice. Often, it is the by-product of a hundred little choices. And it is very different than uncertainty. A life of faith is full of uncertainties. But a life of faith is also full of trust, full of hope, full of love for God, full of intimacy with God. Unbelief separates us from God.

Just as unbelief kept the Israelites from entering the Promised Land, it keeps us from entering God’s Presence. Unbelief keeps us from experiencing and encountering the Holy Spirit. Unbelief keeps us from entering into the gifts of the Spirit. I know because I lived in that specific unbelief for years.

We, as the American Church, have to stop celebrating unbelief as if it is a natural and inevitable part of following Jesus. It’s not! Uncertainty is a natural and inevitable part of the faith journey, but unbelief is not. Not distinguishing between the two is harmful to the process of discipleship.

Compared to our Christian brothers and sisters on the continents of South America, Asia, and Africa, North American Christians are steeped in the sin of unbelief. And the first step to ridding ourselves of sin is repentance. The proper response to our unbelief is not to accept it as “normal” but to repent of it and renounce it in Jesus’ name.