“You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2 ESV)
“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14 ESV)
Often times, in our Christian experience, we believe that morality is the goal of our faith. It is relatively easy to define, there are many scriptures that reinforce that we should live moral lives and we are able to accomplish morality by being disciplined; in short, morality is measurable. We can produce morality on our own which should scare us! There are plenty of non Christians who are very moral (far more so than I am): they don’t cheat, steal or lie, they are benevolent, faithful to their spouses, and kind to others. These are good things, right? YES, they are! Morality can be easily defined, and sometimes produced, by a list of things “to do” and things not “to do.” We like lists because they put us in control.
Morality is not, however, the goal of the Christian life – holiness is the goal of the Christian life. Morality doesn’t require Jesus, but holiness is built entirely upon Jesus. Far too many have settled in to a Christless Christianity. If morality is the target then we look to ourselves and our own power to produce it, and when we do we become very self-righteous. Those who have a hard time producing morality are looked down on because they aren’t strong enough, disciplined enough or don’t measure up. So should we not be moral people? No, we should be! But morality is not the aim. When our target is holiness then we are driven to Christ in despair because we know that we are not holy as He is – and as we are commanded to be. When we aim for holiness, morality is produced as a byproduct. One is built upon us and our own efforts and one is built upon Jesus and the work He did for us.
Morality focuses on behavior and the consequences associated with our behaviors; holiness focuses on the heart’s motivations and the power of God to transform our hearts of stone. Should we not be concerned with our external behaviors, should we just live however we want? NO! But we all know that managing behavior, suppressing our feelings or just trying to take our thoughts captive never results in true and lasting transformation. Our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are indicators of what we really believe down deep in our hearts – in our gut! It is so hard to change because the root of our sin runs very deep and we seldom do the work that is required to unearth what we are really believing so we become content with just replacing our sinful thoughts, feelings and behaviors with less offensive ones. This is why Jesus said that our work is to believe (john 6:29). So let us learn to do the painful and difficult work of excavating the false beliefs that are driving our sinful thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
Beliefs -> Thoughts -> Feelings -> Behaviors.
Our beliefs lead to our thoughts which lead to our feelings which lead to our behaviors. Most people who attend church are pretty good at managing external behaviors because we know what is acceptable and what is not and we really want people to think highly of us. So we become content with not swearing, sleeping around, drinking too much and trying our best to stay out of the ditch of the really “bad sins.” We aren’t overly concerned that our hearts are filled with anger, impatience, angst, lust, jealousy or discontent. All we are really doing is replacing “unacceptable” external behaviors with more “acceptable” ones like self-righteousness, self-reliance and self-control. Managing behaviors is rooted in self. If we are really honest, we’d far rather deal with the self-righteous elder brother’s life than we would deal with the egregiously sinful life of the younger brother (Luke 15:11-32). This is because the consequences of the elder brother’s self righteous behavior is not as disruptive to our lives as the consequences to the younger brother’s sinful life. Despite the fact that the younger brother is the one in the parable – and normally the one in real life – that understands his need for grace. We prefer good behavior over contrite hearts.
Our feelings are underneath our behaviors and they are far more difficult for us to manage. They come on like a wave and can be overwhelming. Feelings of angst, impatience, lust, covetousness, jealousy, inadequacy, guilt, shame and discontent – just to name a few. Who hasn’t resolved to be more patient only to find themselves stuck behind a intolerably slow driver or picking the slowest check out line at the grocery store? Most won’t scream out the window at the driver ahead of them to “hurry up,” or yell at the clerk at the store to “put a move on it!” This is because we have learned to manage our external behaviors, but the feeling of impatience (and probably growing angst) is overwhelming and nearly impossible to manage. We don’t know what to do with these feelings so we try our best to ignore them or shove them down. This is not the biblical way to handle our feelings. Instead of suppressing them, we should follow them – all the way to the root belief that is producing them. This takes time, energy and dependent surrender upon a good and gracious God to do this.
Instead, we resolve to change how we think; we resolve that we should take every thought captive to obedience to Christ (and we should 2 Corinthians 10:5) and we resolve to think on excellent things instead of those things which stir up our anger, lust, jealousy and impatience (Philippians 4:8). So how’s that working for you? We all know the answer to that question! Resolving to think differently does not work because your thoughts are a byproduct of your beliefs – you are closer to your beliefs, but attempting to just change the way that you think is a frustrating and unfruitful endeavor. We must follow our sinful thoughts to their roots of unbelief in the heart.
Just because you didn’t kill someone, didn’t steal something or didn’t honk at the driver in front of you doesn’t mean that you are free. And make no mistake, Jesus came to set you free (John 6:36; Romans 6:7, 18, 20, Galatians 5:1). Angry hearts aren’t free hearts, lust filled hearts aren’t free hearts, impatient hearts aren’t free hearts. Therefore, we must learn to follow our thoughts, feelings and behaviors to their roots – we must use them to diagnose the roots of sinful false belief in our hearts. The unbelief in our heart is the root of all sinful behavior (Matthew 12:34, 15:18-19). We must learn to repent of the sin underneath the sin. We must learn to ask and mine out why we are angry, greedy, lustful, selfish, rude, prideful? We must ask ourselves, “what have I really set my hope upon, where is my treasure really?” When you begin to ask these questions you will ALWAYS FIND that your real problem is a worship problem. You will always find that you have attached ultimate value and worth to a created thing (relationships, marriage, success, pleasure, children, morality, service, acceptance) and this thing is not able to hold the weight of your worship. And whatever we worship converts us in to its image. You BELIEVE that this thing at the center of your heart will produce security, significance and happiness – it will not, it cannot. This is why the gospel always invades the heart – not primarily the thoughts, feelings or behaviors. As Christ begins to reign in those areas of our hearts as its greatest treasure then our thoughts, feelings and behaviors slowly begin to change.
It really is simple, it’s just not easy! Running is not mechanically complex – anyone can run. Running is simple, but driving your mile time to 7 minutes, 6 minutes or even less is not easy! Just because following our behaviors, feelings & thoughts to their root of false belief & false worship in our hearts is simple does not mean that it is easy. It requires grace driven effort. But let us not shy away from pursuing godliness – for it is what we are called to. If you will pursue Christ like this then you will find liberating joy, regardless of the circumstances that you face. God is most glorified when you are most satisfied in Him.