A Prayer for Year’s End

Year's End - Valley of Vision
(from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers)

It’s never too late to pray for the year just past. This beautiful prayer was recently shared with me by a close friend.

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“I Married a Same-Sex Attracted Man. And I Am Blessed.”

My husband struggles with same-sex attraction. Like me, Sam came into this world with an innate and insatiable desire for things that bring death. Like me, he came into our marriage bearing the weight of pain he didn’t ask for and the scars of choices he can’t change. And like me, he has chosen to trust Christ—not to make him heterosexual, but to make him holy.

That is how this article – “I Married a Same-Sex Attracted Man. And I Am Blessed.” – by Jacyln Parrish starts.

The piece is well worth reading in full, even if you do not experience similar struggles; indeed I found myself resonating with a lot of what she said. (For example, how we all “came into this world with an innate an insatiable desire for things that bring death” (see above)).

Indeed, I found the article in equal parts heavy-hitting…

Marriage is an incarnate manifestation of Christ and his church (Eph. 5:22–33), a living and breathing argument for the gospel. Nothing less than his grace could empower us to forgive as much as marriage requires (Matt. 18:21–35). Nothing less than a perfectly faithful God could give us courage to trust something as faithless as another human (1 Tim. 2:13). And nothing less than his love could compel us to love as wholly as we must (1 John 4:19).

… and deeply moving.

When I was in second grade, I bet my eternity on Scripture. When I married Sam, I bet my life on it. The 8-year-old girl in the baptistry anted up as best she could, but the woman at the altar was all-in, and she knew it. If I was wrong, it wouldn’t cost me down the line after death. It would cost me today, tomorrow, and every day for the rest of my life. Suddenly, Scripture wasn’t something I could devote the odd half-hour to; I had to build my life on it, and I needed it beneath my feet every moment. […]

When the scars of past sins start screaming (and yes, they do), Sam and I cling to Scripture and weep together before our Savior, “I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me!” (Ps. 119:8).

And at the end of each day, both good and bad, we can echo the psalmist: “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word” (Ps. 119:16)

Life is tough. Married life — covenantally-committed to a fellow faithless human — is tough. But God’s word is a source of real comfort and edification; and His gospel is good news indeed for a fallen world!

Oratio, meditatio, tentatio

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. (Psalm 119:67)

I have recently finished reading John Piper’s short and superb little biography, Martin Luther: Lessons from His Life and Labour (free to download here). Piper focuses on the significance of Scripture to Luther’s life and ministry, drawing out certain lessons to exhort those in gospel ministry.

Many of the points from the Luther story are largely expected — the importance of keen study of the Scriptures; original languages as the key to understanding the text; the necessity of prayer and utter dependency on God; and so on.

But the bit which caught me off guard, and which left the deepest impression on me, is what Luther called the “touchstone” of understanding Scripture: trials.

Reflecting on Psalm 119, Luther said:

I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself […] The method of which I am speaking is the one which the holy king David teaches in Psalm 119 […] Here you will find three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout the psalm and run thus: Oratio, meditatio, tentatio (prayer, meditation, trial).

Oratio, meditatio, tentatio. Prayer, meditation, trial.

And trials Luther called the “touchstone”, for they

teach you not only to know and understand but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s word is: it is wisdom supreme.

And Luther again, reflecting on his own experiences, said:

For as soon as God’s Word becomes known through you, the devil will afflict you and will make a real doctor of you, and will teach you by his temptations to seek and to love God’s Word. For I myself […] owe my papists many thanks for so beating, pressing, and frightening me through the devil’s raging that they should have turned me into a fairly good theologian, driving me to a goal I should never have reached.

The language of “trials” or “afflictions” feels so foreign to many of us who live in the developed world. More so if we are in our 20s and 30s. Most of us have yet to encounter any real suffering; many of us still view ourselves as invincible.

And so it is for me, someone who lives a relatively comfortable life in 21st century London.

Lately, though, I’ve been going through quite a difficult period. I’ve been forced to strip away many things I held dear and placed my hope in. It’s been humbling and painful.

But in each painful instance, Jesus has welcomed me with outstretched arms, saying, “I’m enough for you; if you have me, you have everything“.

Much like when Eustace is “undragoned” by Aslan in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, this pain is the necessary restorative work of turning me back to my loving Saviour. Or much like Luther (above), this trial is teaching me to know my Lord Jesus more deeply. Indeed, I am becoming a better theologian.

By no means am I holding myself out to be an expert or “holier than thou”. I don’t even think I’ve fully come out of this trial as yet. And in any case, my pain does not even begin to compare to the ordeals some of my brothers and sisters in Christ have endured, let alone to the anguish my Saviour suffered.

But I can testify that in my state, His Words bring me great comfort. They are sweeter, truer, lovelier. He is the living water who truly satisfies my deepest thirst; he is the bread of life who truly satisfies my deepest hunger; he is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear?

His grace is sufficient for me, for his power is made perfect in my weakness.

He has a plan; He is sovereign and will bring it to pass; He who promised is faithful, He will surely do it.

Dear brother or sister, if you are going through a similarly difficult situation, don’t neglect the tentatio which God will no doubt use to deepen your knowledge of Him. May this fiery trial bring you closer to Him and fill you with inexpressible joy.

Let me find Your grace in the valley
Let me find Your life in my death
Let me find Your joy in my sorrow
Your wealth in my need
That You’re near with every breath
In the valley

Some lyrics are just “too true sometimes, to sing all the time”

“All you need is love” is a lie ’cause
We had love, but we still said goodbye
Now we’re tired, battered fighters

And it stings when it’s nobody’s fault
‘Cause there’s nothing to blame at the drop of your name
It’s only the air you took and the breath you left

***

And I know it was me who called it over, but
I still wish you’d fought me ’til your dying day
Don’t let me get away

‘Cause I can’t wait to figure out what’s wrong with me
So I can say this is the way that I used to be
There’s no substitute for time
Or for the sadness

Split screen sadness

C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books”

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

You can read this absolute gem here: http://www.theelliots.org/Soapbox2008/OntheReadingofOldBooks.pdf

How big is your view of God? Let John Calvin challenge you:

“[I]t is not enough to believe simply that [God] is the only being everyone ought to worship and adore, unless we are also convinced that he is the source of all goodness, and that we must seek for everything in him alone. I am trying to say that we must be convinced not only that he created the world, keeps it going by his goodness, rules the human race with justice, puts up with it in his love and shields it with his protection, but also that there is not an atom of light, wisdom or justice, power, integrity or truth to be found anywhere but flowing from him and generated by him. […] Until people feel that they owe everything to God, that they are protected by his fatherly care and that he is the Author of all their blessings, so that nothing should be sought apart from him, they will never submit to him voluntarily. Indeed, unless they put their complete happiness in his hands, they will never truly have their lives under his control.” (Institutes, 2.1)

I must confess, personally, that I rarely — if at all — think of God in such categories. Rather more the opposite — I tend to put Him in a box, bound by my rules. Perhaps that’s why I lack thankfulness, or prayerfulness? Calvin draws a direct connection between our knowledge of God and how we live:

“The result of our knowledge ought to be first, that we learn reverence and awe and second, that we should be led under its guidance to ask for every good thing from him, and when we receive it to give thanks to him. How can the idea of God come to mind without immediately making us think that since he made us, we are bound by the law of creation itself to submit to his authority — that we owe our lives to him and that we should refer everything we do to him? Otherwise it surely follows that our lives are spoilt, if they are not planned in obedience to him, since our lives should be ruled by his will. Our grasp of his nature is not clear unless we acknowledge him to be the origin and fount of all goodness. This would always lead to confidence in him and a longing to stay close to him, if the depravity of man’s mind did not lead it away from the right approach.” (Institutes, 2.2)

The final sentence of the previous paragraph shows us why we often don’t see God for who He is — because of the fall, sin has corrupted our mind; man’s mind has become depraved. In our fallen state we fail to acknowledge Him and seek to distance ourselves from Him.

But as Christians, we are set free from sin and set free to see God for who He really is: utterly good. Let us then pray that we would not lapse into the old ways of thinking. May we be convinced that he is the “source of all goodness … and seek for everything in him alone”.  

How union with Christ changes our attempts to resist sin:

“Before being joined to Christ, when I resisted sin I was like a prisoner who tries to escape over the prison wall before his sentence is paid. When sin the jailer catches up with me and tells me to come back into prison, I have no choice but to go, because I am guilty and the penalty is not paid. But when the Christian resists sin he is like a prisoner who is released through the prison gate after serving his sentence. When the jailer threatens him and tells him to return to prison, he need not go. The only power that sin has over the Christian is the power of bluff.”

– Christopher Ash, Teaching Romans (2008) at 229.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17 ESV)

We are told of the presence of all Three Persons of the blessed Trinity. God the Son, manifest in the flesh, is baptized; God the Spirit descends like a dove, and lights upon Him; God the Father speaks from heaven with a voice. In a word, we have the manifested presence of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. We may regard this as a public announcement that the work of Christ was the result of the eternal counsels of all the Three Persons of the blessed Trinity. It was the whole Trinity, which at the beginning of the creation said, “Let us make man;” it was the whole Trinity again, which at the beginning of the Gospel seemed to say, “Let us save man.”

– JC Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew (1856), at 22-23

Owen, ‘How Life and Comfort Depend on Mortification’

As we walk with our God we desire greatly His strength, comfort, power and peace. The realisation of these, and thus the joy of our spiritual life, depends greatly upon the mortification of sin.

Owen acknowledges that there is no necessary tie between mortification and these things – ‘the use of means for the obtaining of peace is ours; the bestowing of it is God’s prerogative’. He also notes that mortification is not the ‘immediate means that God has instituted to give us life, vigour, courage and consolation’; that would be adoption (cf Rom 8:16).

However, he goes on to explain:

In our ordinary walking with God, and in the ordinary course of His dealing with us, the vigour and comfort of our spiritual lives depend much on our mortification. Mortification not only bears a cause-and-effect relationship to our joy, but it works effectually to bring it to pass. The vigour of our spiritual lives is not possible apart from mortification.

Mortification prevents sin from depriving us of health in our spiritual life. Every unmortified sin will certainly do two things:

  1. It will weaken the soul, and deprive it of its vigour. When David had, for a while, harboured an unmortified lust in his heart, it broke all his bones, and left him no spiritual strength; hence he complained that he was sick, weak, wounded, faint. ‘There is,’ he said, ‘no soundness in my flesh’ (Psa 38:3); ‘I am feeble and crushed’ (v8). Indeed, I cannot so much as ‘look up’ (Psa 40:12, AV). An unmortified lust will drink up the spirit, and all the vigour of the soul, and weaken it for all duties. For:
    • Sin untunes and unframes the heart itself, by entangling its affections. It diverts the heart from the spiritual frame that is required for vigorous communion with God. It lays hold on the affections, rendering its object beloved and desirable, so expelling the love of the Father (1 John 2:15; 3:17). The unmortified soul cannot say uprightly and truly that God is its portion, having something else that it loves. The soul and its affections, that should be full of God, cannot be full of Him, since it is entangled in worldly pursuits.
    • Sin fills the thoughts with its enticements. First it captures the thoughts and, if unmortified, it then seeks to make provision for and fulfil the lusts of the flesh.
    • Sin breaks out and actually hinders duty. The ambitious man must be studying, the worldling must be working or contriving, and the sensual, vain person providing vanity for himself, when they should be engaged in the worship of God. It would extend this discourse too much o set forth the breaches, ruin, weakness, and desolations that one unmortified lust will bring upon a soul.
  2. Sin will also darken the soul, and deprive it of its comfort and peace. Sin darkens the soul. It is a cloud, a thick cloud, that spreads itself over the face of the soul, and intercepts all the beams of God’s love and favour. It takes away all sense of the privilege of our adoption; and if the soul begins to gather up thoughts of consolation, sin quickly scatters them.

Mortification prunes all the graces of God, and makes room for them in our hearts to grow. The life and vigour of our spiritual life consists in the vigor and flourishing of the plants of grace in our hearts. Now, as you may see in a garden, let there be a precious herb planted, and let the ground be untilled, and the weeds grow about it, perhaps it will live still, but it will be a poor, withering and unuseful thing. You must look and search for it, and sometimes can scarce find it; and when you do, you can scarce know it, whether it is the plant you look for or not; and suppose it is, you can make no use of it at all. But let another of the same kind be set into he ground, naturally as barren and bad as the other, but let it be well weeded, and every thing that is noxious and hurtful removed from it, it flourishes and thrives; you may see it at first glance into the garden, and have it for your use when you please.

So it is with the graces of the Spirit that are planted in our hearts. If they abide in a heart where there is some neglect of mortification, and they are about to die (Rev 3:2), they are withering and decaying. The heart is like the sluggard’s field, so overgrown with weeds that you can scarce see the good corn. Such a man may search for faith, love, and zeal, and scarce be able to find any. If he does discover that these graces are there and alive, yet they are so weak and so clogged with lusts, they are of very little use; they remain, indeed, but are ready to die.

But now let the heart be cleansed by mortification, and the weeds of lust constantly and daily rooted up (as they spring daily, nature being their proper soil), there will be room for grace to thrive and flourish, the graces that God gives will act their part, and be ready for every use and purpose!

– John Owen, ‘How Life and Comfort Depend on Mortification’ (Ch 2 in his The Mortification of Sin, abridged by Richard Rushing)

Owen, ‘Why The Flesh Must be Mortified’

The main point thus far: Even while we claim the meritorious mortification of our sin through the work of the cross of Christ, and though the implantation of our new life in Christ is in opposition to and destructive of the expression of sin, sin remains, acts, and works in the best of believers while we are yet in this world. It must be our constant daily duty to mortify it.

Before proceeding, I cannot but note that even though there is in this generation a growing number of professors, a great noise of religion, religious duties in every corner, and preaching in abundance, there is little evidence of the fruit of true mortification. Perhaps we might find that ,judging by the principle of mortification, the number of true believers is not as multiplied as it appears from those who have made a mere profession. Some speak and profess a spirituality that far exceeds the former days, but their lives given evidence of a miserable unmortified heart. If vain spending of time, idleness, envy, strife, variance, emulations, wrath, pride, worldliness, selfishness (1 Cor 1), are the mark of Christians, we have them among us in abundance. May the good Lord send us a spirit of mortification to cure our distempers, or we will be in a sad condition!

There are two evils which certainly accompany every unmortified professor, the first, in himself, and the second, with respect to others.

First, in himself. The basic characteristic of an unmortified course is the digestion of sin without bitterness in the heart. He who is able to swallow and digest daily sins in his life without conviction in the heart is at the very brink of turning the grace of God into lasciviousness, and being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

Let a man pretend what he will, little concern over sin is a serious offence to the grace and mercy of God!

There is no greater evidence of a false and rotten heart in the world than to deal in such a trade. To claim the blood of Christ, which is given to cleanse us (1 John 1:7; Titus 2:14); the exaltation of Christ, which is to give us repentance (Acts 5:31); the doctrine of grace, which teaches us to deny all ungodliness (Titus 2:11-12); and then to allow sin, is a rebellion that in the outcome will break the bones. From this door have gone out from us most of the professors that have apostatized in the days in which we live. For a while most of them were under conviction, and they ‘escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Pet 2:20). But after having become acquainted with the doctrines of the gospel, they became weary of their spiritual duties. They had no true desire for these, and they allowed evil instead to lay hold of them, and speedily tumble them into perdition.

Second, to others. Unmortified professors have an evil influence on others in two ways:

i. Others are hardened in their own sin by persuading themselves that they are in just as good a condition as the unmortified professor. They see their zeal for religion, but it is not accompanied with righteousness. They view their worldly and selfish lives. They see them talk spiritually but live vainly. They hear them mention communion with God, and yet they are in every way conformed to the world. They see them boast of forgiveness of sins, and yet never forgive others. Thus, as they see the stain of sin in the unmortified professor, they harden their own hearts in their unregeneracy.

ii. It deceives them to think that if they can just be as good as the unmortified professor it shall be well with them. In reality they might even go farther in ‘holiness’ than the unmortified professor, and yet still fall short of eternal life.

– John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (1656). (Abridged version by Richard Rushing (2004), at 10-12)

I wonder if these words of John Owen, written almost 400 years ago, are equally descriptive of the bride of Christ today?