Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Scrupulosity: A Sonnet

This is a sonnet by a Scrupe Group member who has given permission for it to be shared here. It's his hope, and mine, that it will speak to you and perhaps for you as you strive to deal with this cross that we in the Group bear.

Scrupulosity

I’d fret about the rules I shouldn’t break
and made up new ones that I thought were good
and gave myself an existential ache
with fear that I would not do what I should.
I’d fret about my every thought and feeling
that didn’t match what I considered pure
and tried to crush the ones that weren’t appealing,
and it seemed that I would be damned for sure.
But while I couldn’t face that I was flawed
and that my thoughts were full of rot and death,
I focused on myself instead of God
and faith He’d pull me from my hellish depth.
My sin appeared so mighty and immense,
but it’s not God, with Love’s omnipotence.


"On my blog, the sonnet includes a photo I took that I think captures something of the feeling of the way this experience blocks our sense of God, creates a Jesus Eclipse:

https://snapshotcouplets.wordpress.com/2017/07/02/scrupulosity/

The sonnet is written in the past tense as if I were healed already. That is my hope, that I, and all who suffer from it, will be!

Mario

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

It's not just OCD. It's human nature

Martin Luther's opponents accused him of taking the easy way out when he proclaimed the message of Jesus and Paul that we are saved by grace through faith.  But faith, as Luther never tired of pointing out, is never easy. It's believing what one cannot see while rejecting what appears to be obvious. It's holding on by letting go. It's exactly what Hebrews 11: 1 calls it: "the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen." Moreover, it's trusting God for something our fallen human natures really don't want: a righteousness that comes from outside of ourselves, that we have done nothing to deserve, which we are powerless to obtain by anything we do, and which has as one if its most essential prerequisites a recognition of one's own unworthiness and helplessness.

It's not just people with OCD who have trouble with faith. It's all of us sinners. We all want, in Bonhoeffer's phrase, to "stand before God and say, 'I have done my duty.'"

We may reduce that "duty" to what we think is a very little thing, like believing. But faith is anything but easy. In fact, humanly speaking, it's impossible. It's a miracle which God creates and sustains in our hearts from moment to moment. It's looking away from our own sinful hearts and our own weakness and inadequacy to the righteousness which Jesus tells us is to be found in Him.

OCD keeps bringing our gaze back to ourselves. It motivates us to fret over our own lack of the very thing which Jesus tells us over and over that we will always lack in ourselves, and must find in Him. But it's not just our brain chemistry we're fighting here. We're fighting our fallen human nature, a sinfulness we share with the entire human race. We're fighting our inbred resistance to the idea that we're helpless. We're fighting our prideful resistance to the idea that we're not only unworthy but that nothing we can say or do will make us worthy. And perhaps most difficult of all, we're fighting our all too human need to believe what we can see, what we can grasp, what we can touch and taste.

There is nothing so impossible to a fallen human being as to trust that something is true that our senses and even our common sense cannot verify, which in fact seems to fly in the face of everything we can sense and observe, upon which everything depends- and yet for which we only have Someone else's Word. And that remains true even if that Someone is God Himself.

Martin Luther writes in his House Postil (book of family sermons) for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity the following meditation on Matthew 18: 23-35:

It's a simple thing to mouth the expression “forgiveness of sins” just as it is a simple thing to repeat the basic truths of Christian doctrine. Ah, yes, if all we had to do was to mouth the words! The problem is that when it comes to putting that expression into practice, we don’t know the first thing about it! You see, it is such a tremendous truth, a truth that I am to believe wholeheartedly, that all my sins are forgiven, and that by faith I am righteous before God. Oh, what a marvelously astounding righteousness this is! How totally different this is in contrast to the righteousness of this world as proclaimed by all its lawyers, intellectual giants, and philosophers! For they all reach the same conclusion, namely, that righteousness must be an inner, inherent characteristic of the human heart and soul. But this Gospel lesson teaches us that Christian righteousness is not a universal characteristic of the human heart which all share. No, Christ is teaching us that we become righteous and are freed from sins through the forgiveness of sins!

When we hear that we have been promised forgiveness of sins, we really cannot grasp that, and take this position: I have committed this and that sin; to pay for them I will do thus and so, fast “x” number of days, say “x” number of players, fund “x” number of poorhouses, and pay for all my sins. It’s because human nature is proud and always wants to be in control, pulling its own water bucket from the well, wants to have the honor of laying the first stone, of being Number One. That’s why this is a majestic message of divine wisdom: We must believe that our righteousness, salvation, and comfort lie outside of ourselves, namely, that we are righteous before God, acceptable to him, holy and wise, even though there is nothing within us but sin, injustice, and stupidity.

Human nature is defenseless against a bad habit; it cannot avoid an awareness of sins and yet cannot believe in pure grace and the forgiveness of sins. If you have developed this skill, of not seeing what you do see, and of not feeling what you do feel, then let me tell you something about nobler and more majestic. But I warn you, it will take you a long time to develop this artistic skill! For this business of faith in the forgiveness of sins is just as if someone were aiming a loaded gun at your face and was ready to pull the trigger, and yet you are to believe and to say, “Not to worry!”

So you see, fellow scrupers, it's not just OCD we're fighting when we struggle with the immensity and sufficiency of God's grace. We're also struggling with our own sinful natures. All of us fallen human critters want to be saved because we're worthy of it. But none of us are. That's why grace seems so unnatural and unlikely and difficult to believe in. And yet it's all free. It doesn't depend on us.

The Gospel isn't the promise of what God WILL do IF we do this or that, or don't do this or that. It is the proclamation of an objective fact- what God HAS done in Christ. The Good News we proclaim is just as true for everyone whether they believe it or not. The only question is whether they will trust it, and thus benefit from it.

That is not merely hard. It is impossible. As Luther says, it's disbelieving what is in front of our very eyes and believing instead what our every instinct warns us is false. We should not be discouraged when we find that we are unable to do this. Quite the contrary, in fact. That fact only serves as a reminder that we need to depend on God for our sufficiency rather than trying to supply our own.

Faith, when all is said and done, is not so much a being full of something as it is being empty and knowing that we are empty, and trusting God to fill us.  The paradox is that faith is relying on God rather than on ourselves to supply what is lacking even in our faith.

When doubts assail us, instead of trying to make ourselves believe or despairing at our failure to do so, we need to look once again at that thing which remains true no matter how false it seems, which always remains outside of us and yet our most fundamental reality, and which we are powerless even to trust or to appeal to on our own. Our prayer must always be that of the distraught father in Mark 9:23-24: "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!"

HT: Pr. Georg Warnecke

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Get over yourself!

The Babylon Bee is a Christian satire site sort of similar to The Onion. Except, you know,  Christian. And this particular bit of satire is just what the OCD doctor ordered for scrupulous Christians.

Martin Luther and Thomas More may have agreed about very little else, but they did agree that the most effective thing you can do when the devil vexes you is to laugh at him. Pride is his Achilles heal, and being laughed at is something he simply cannot stand.

The same thing applies to religious OCD. It may not be what we want to hear, but sometimes the best thing we can hear while in the throes of scrupulosity is "Get over yourself!" The amount of absolutely ridiculous pride involved in thinking that I am the Greatest Sinner of All Time, the one sinner whose sin is so great that even the blood of Jesus can't wash my guilt away and even the love of God can't save me is actually kind of funny. When we can see it that way, we also see how silly are obsessions can be.

Sometimes the best medicine for scrupulosity is a little humility, and a good, hearty laugh.

ADDENDUM: Seems that I left off the  first"b" in the link to the article. But the link works now, and you can find the article here.

Monday, May 8, 2017

"Don't Be Afraid!" A Sermon for Easter Morning

This is a few weeks late, but I thought it might be worth posting anyway. --REW

The Resurrection of our Lord

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. -Mark 16:8, ESV


What a strange text we have this morning! Here the Marys and Salome had gone to the tomb, mourning for a dead Lord, and expecting to complete the sad task of embalming Him. Instead, they found the stone at the tomb’s entrance rolled away, and an angel sitting next to it- with the incredible news that the One they mourned was alive!

“Go!” the angel said. “Tell His disciples. Tell Peter. He is not here. He is risen!” So did they go and do as they had been told? No. They didn't tell anybody. It's not that they were overcome with joy that Jesus wasn’t dead anymore. It seems that they're afraid.

Now, it’s a very human thing to be afraid. We live in a universe over which we have even less control than we tell ourselves we have. Have you ever looked through a telescope? Astronomy is one of my hobbies, and I do it as often as I can. Before you've looked at many of the wonders out there in the Big Empty, something will really sink in that you already know: that the universe is a lot bigger than you are and that there is very little that you can do about most of it.

An asteroid could come hurtling toward us at literally any moment entirely unseen, blindside us, and slam into the earth with enough force to raise a cloud that would doom all life on the planet. A nearby star could go nova, and flood us with lethal radiation. In the southern summer sky, in the teapot of Sagittarius, is the center of our galaxy, where there resides a gigantic black hole. I once attended a lecture by Stephen Hawking in which he said that he's fairly confident that someday we're all going to go down that particular drain if we don't blow ourselves up first.

None of us is guaranteed the next five minutes. A heart attack or stroke could end the life of any one of us before I finish the next sentence. If I finish the next sentence!

Climate change. Serial killers. Maniacs at the head of governments which have nuclear weapons. We live in an uncertain and frightening world in which the roof could cave in on us, either literally or figuratively, at any moment. Yes, we can certainly identify with those three women. All of us know what it's like to be afraid.

And then, there was that angel business. Most of us usually think of angels as fluttery, effeminate critters like the ones we see on Christmas cards. People who read the Bible much usually don't make that mistake. Pastor Hans Fiene has a wonderful, if brief, video on YouTube in which he displays the probable reaction of any one of us who encountered a real angel. It consists of a man, eyes wide open in sheer terror, screaming at the top of his lungs! No wonder the Marys and Martha were afraid! Over and over in the Bible, the first thing an angel has to do when he encounters a human being is to tell him or her not to be afraid! 


But I don't think even the angel was what those women were truly afraid of. No, I think they probably were even more afraid of what the angel told them. He told them that Jesus- Whom they had loved so deeply and had known so well; Whom they had seen scourged within an inch of His life and then watched die an agonizing death on the cross, Whom they had buried with their own hands- was alive! It was simply too good to be true. The news was too joyful to be believed.  Any of us who has ever lost a loved one can understand all too well why they would be terrified to believe what the angel told them.He had told them that they hadn't lost Jesus after all!

 It might well have been that they simply wanted so badly for the angel’s news to be true that they couldn’t bring themselves to risk believing it. Actually, I have a hunch that that’s the most likely explanation of all. They had just lost Someone they dearly loved. Perhaps they simply couldn’t bear the prospect of believing the angel’s incredible news and then having it turn out to have been a group hallucination, or a cruel joke, or any of the hundreds of explanations for the experience that seem far more likely than somebody coming back from the dead.

How very much like them we are! We gather here this Easter morning to celebrate the most joyful of all possible news. Christ has risen- and because He has risen, all of those things in this dangerous universe which we might, with reason, be afraid of are no longer threats. If Christ has conquered even death, then the movements of heavenly bodies and the affairs of nations and the condition of our own inner plumbing are under His control, too. If Christ has conquered death, then there’s nothing that tomorrow might hold which He doesn’t have under His control. If Christ has conquered death, then He has conquered sin, as well- and atoned for all those things of which our consciences might be afraid, and taken away His Father’s anger at them. If Christ has conquered death, then the loved ones we have buried and who have died in Him are not lost to us forever after all.

If Christ has conquered death, then we don’t even have to be afraid to die.

It’s all a great deal to take in, isn’t it- even for those of us who live two thousand years later, and are here this morning because we profess faith in the news the angel gave those women on the first Easter morning? When we leave this building,  we will once again find ourselves living in a world of uncertainty, of threatening possibilities that are largely beyond our control. We will still miss the loved ones with whom we have celebrated previous Easters. We will still look forward into a future in which there seem to be very few guarantees and a great many things that can go wrong.

We do not know what even tomorrow may hold. We do not what we may have to face before this day is over. We do not even know whether we will be alive to see this day end. And what if it isn’t true? Do we dare to believe the message the angel brought to the women at the Empty Tomb and risk disappointment? After all, we haven’t seen the angel. We haven’t seen the Empty Tomb. Isn’t the news we’re here this morning because we have heard just a little too good to be true? No. Isn’t it a lot too good to be true?

Yes, the fear of those women is very understandable. It finds an echo in our own fear. But in the very midst of the fear and the unbelief that is the condition in which fallen human beings like us find ourselves living our lives, the voice of the angel rings down through the centuries, too, Endorsed by the testimony of God’s Holy Spirit, echoes around all around the world this morning, not least in our own bereaved and doubting hearts.. It sounds like a trumpet blast in defiance of every doubt and every fear. It's made not only to the Marys and to Salome, but to each and every one of us: “Do not be afraid! He is risen!”

Saint Paul hit the nail on the head: if Christ is not raised, our faith is in vain. If Christ is not raised, then we who believe the angel’s message are indeed of all people the most miserable. If Christ is not raised, then we are building our lives and all our hopes upon a lie, and that is the cruelest of all of the cruelties this frightening and arbitrary world inflicts upon us. We run a risk in believing the angel- the very same risk the Marys and Salome ran.

The night before last we gathered, some of us, in this very church to hear a story whose ring of truth is unmistakable.  We heard how the only one in the sad and sorry history of our race in who deserved none of the cruelties this world can inflict nevertheless became their victim. The cross rings true for all of us because we can see it and feel it. We, too, know about the cruelty and unfairness of this world we live in. We, too, have suffered, and suffer still. The cross rings true because each of us also bears his or her cross, and must some day die just as Jesus died.

The cross is a reality none of us can deny, as much as we might like to. In our moments of doubt and despair, we’re tempted to believe that it has the final word- that guilt and suffering and death and disappointment are finally all there is. We can choose to believe that. But if we believe that, even if we’re right, it means that finally, our entire existence is a very bad joke, and the punch line is the grave.

Or we can believe the angel. And if the angel is right, then we never have to be afraid again.

How we know that God doesn't speak to us through emotions

The issue isn't whether God CAN speak to us through emotions. He's God. He can do anything He wants. The issue is that, first, He hasn't promised to, and secondly, that since He is not the Author of confusion, it's a pretty safe bet that He won't!

God has simply not promised to speak to us authoritatively anywhere but in the Word. If we look for Him to speak to us through our emotions we are putting our emotions on the same level of authority as His Word. Since our emotions are, by definition, how WE react neurochemically to what happens in our lives, that amounts to equating to putting our own, often unacknowledged wishes and desires on the same level as the Bible!

Our emotions are fickle, unreliable, and everything God and His Word are not. And we just aren't up to the task of stepping into God' shoes and investing our own desires and inclinations with divine authority.

 Obviously, God wants us to respond to others with kindness and compassion. But we don't need our emotions to tell us that; the Word does. What He wants us to do in any given situation is best judged by applying the Word with our intellects, not through our emotions, which are our voice and not His. This the Achilles heal of all charismatic and Pentecostal theology. If God subjectively "tells" us to do something then that instruction is on exactly the same level of authority as Holy Scripture itself. However charismatics and Pentecostals try to fudge this point, if God really does speak to you directly He speaks with His own authority, and that's exactly the same authority the Gospels and Paul's epistles speak with. The form of the communication is irrelevant; its authority comes from that of the Communicator.

But in fact, when somebody says "God told me," what he or she is really saying (whether he or she realizes it or not) is "This is what I want to do, and I've convinced myself that it's an order from God by virtue of the very fact that I want to do it!"  But emotion is nothing but a reaction to the chemical activity in our nervous systems at any given moment. If we look for messages from God in our emotions- or in chicken entrails, or tea leaves, or any other medium God hasn't promised to use to communicate with us- we very quickly going to start getting "messages" which God never sent. In fact, the messages we attribute to God are going to be what we want, not what He tells us.

 A person with OCD who regards emotion as a source of messages from God is going to be tied in such spiritual knots as defy description. In fact, that's true of anybody. God doesn't care whether you wear the blue or the red dress despite the fact that you get all warm and fuzzy when you look at the blue one. But if a person with OCD looks to something as uncertain and subjective and fickle and unreliable as the emotions rather than to the firmness and unchanging clarity of the Word, the result is going to be especially ugly. Compulsions are going to become divine commands, and obsessions are going to be missions from God.

God speaks to us clearly, reliably and unambiguously in His Word. It will not lie to us. But our emotions and subjective impressions both can and do.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Surely

Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? 2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? 9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. 11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.
--Isaiah 53, ESV




Friday, March 31, 2017

Pastor Borghardt explains the unpardonable sin

It really makes sense, if you think it through: only by the testimony of the Holy Spirit to Jesus can we believe. In the last analysis, what Jesus is talking about when He speaks of the one unpardonable sin is final unbelief. It's unforgivable not because God is unwilling to forgive it, but because the person who commits it refuses to be forgiven the only way such a thing is possible- through faith in Jesus, enabled by the Spirit Who always bears witness to Jesus, and never to Himself.

Remember, I said final unbelief. One thing that Pastor B. doesn't say that should be emphasized is that Paul and C.S. Lewis and many other great Christians rejected Jesus at one time. Having done so at some previous time is not the unpardonable sin! The unpardonable sin is the persistent and determined rejection of the testimony of the Holy Spirit to Jesus which hardens a heart against Him. Testifying to Jesus and bringing about faith in Him is, after all, the Holy Spirit's main work.