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“He went on: ‘What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’” (Mark 7:20-23)
When you are under pressure, when the stress levels are rising, what comes out of you? How do you instinctively respond? In Mark 7:20-23, Jesus makes the point to his disciples that it isn’t the external things that defile a person. No, Jesus says: there is more than enough evil in our own hearts to defile us ten times over.
For those of us who truly want to follow Jesus, who want to be the man or woman God has called us to be, there are all kinds of external steps we can take to help us get there. We can enlist accountability partners, limit our exposure to things that tempt us, focus on things that are positive and bring us life, and so on. But then the pressure rises, the stress hits, and the evil that is in us instinctively comes out. We yell at our loved ones. We overeat. We get drunk. We look at pornography. We steal. We want what someone else has. We spend money foolishly. We mock others. We boast. We shame ourselves. We shut ourselves off from the world. We run away from conflict. Or we lash out. And so many more evil things.
I have been struck recently by just how hard it is to truly change ingrained patterns of behavior. I can know the right thing to do, but when the battle hits, all my knowledge flies out the window and I am a creature of instinct, responding as I always have. Is someone angry with me? I want to make things smooth and happy as quickly as possible. Am I faced with a challenging task? I want to put it out of my mind and do something easier. Am I upset by something my kids have done? I want to yell. As Jesus says in Matthew 12:34, “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.”
There are no simple, quick-fix solutions to this dilemma. Thankfully, Jesus’ death on the cross has saved us from the penalty of our sins, so that the evil that is in our hearts will not lead to our eternal punishment. But freedom from the power of sin in our life takes time. There are no quick, external solutions. The only solution is to continue to seek God, to allow Him to transform us day by day into His image, so that out of the overflow of our hearts will come love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
This summer, I am leading an online book discussion on Richard Foster’s classic book, The Celebration of Discipline. The purpose of spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, meditation, fasting, study, confession, worship, just to name a few, are, according to Foster, “liberation from the stifling slavery to self-interest and fear.” Regularly practicing these spiritually disciplines does not automatically change us, but it regularly puts us in a position where God’s Spirit can transform us, including our instinctive responses to pressure and stress. Foster writes that the Spiritual Disciplines “are a way of sowing to the Spirit.” We sow, in faith that God’s Spirit can reap a harvest of spiritual fruit in our lives.
If you are interested in taking part in the book study, you can buy the book, and then join our online community, the Table, by signing up at http://nlcf.tableproject.org, and then joining the Celebration of Discipline group. Even if you don’t join the group, seek the Lord this summer and always, asking Him to transform you in the deepest parts of your heart, so that when you are under pressure, His fruit might instinctively be produced by you.
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