Our Help Is in the Name of the LORD | Psalm 124

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side—
let Israel now say—
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side
when people rose up against us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone cover us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.

 Blessed be the Lord,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth!
We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped!

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

Psalm 124 ESV

 

Thus far in the Songs of Ascents, we have pondered the necessity of leaving the lands of Mashech and Kedar (symbolic for worldliness) in order to journey toward Jerusalem (Psalm 120), our need for God to be our keeper along the pilgrimage (Psalm 121), and the hopeful longing to worship with God’s people in God’s city (Psalm 122). Together, those three psalms formed a kind of opening trilogy for beginning the God-fearer’s pilgrimage. Psalm 123 then began the second set of three psalms, this time with a predominant theme of God’s protection over His people. Where the previous psalm was a cry to God for mercy, Psalm 124 is a song of thanksgiving for having received God’s boundless mercy.

THE IMMINENT DANGER

As is true of all the psalms, Psalm 124 is aiming to strike our emotions. Such is the nature of both poetry and music. They engage both the head and the heart, our logic and our passions. John Donne’s poem, The Triple Fool, is an amusing meditation on how poetry is often used to bind the torrents of emotion, while setting a poem to music releases those very emotions out again. As both a song and poem, our psalm does both seeks to capture emotion, like a lightening bug in a jar, and at the same time provide us a means of releasing those same emotions.

What emotion then is our psalmist, David, both capturing and releasing? It is the exuberance of being delivered from death. David’s passion overflows with the kind of joyful ecstasy that comes from having narrowly avoided his undoing. Perhaps you’ve felt that feeling before. Hydroplaning while speeding down the highway will do the trick. Adrenaline spikes, and you don’t seem to breath. Pupils dilate, making you feel like you’re seeing everything all at once. Your body feels the danger far quicker than your mind understands it. When you pass through unscathed, your heart is still racing, an adrenaline rush. Through sky-diving, bungie-jumping, roller-coasters, horror movies, and various other means, we seek to experience that danger in a controlled setting. As we’ve said previously, God designed us to tackle the deadly and perilous road of life, filled to the brim with both love and loss. One of the basic foundations of a story’s plot is the conflict, and each story crafted is merely an imitation of the Story that God has been telling from the very beginning of creation. We (whether secretly or not-so-secretly) are fascinated with danger because life itself is dangerous. Deep down we want to slay to the dragon to rescue the damsel or transform the wild beast into a civilized and charming prince because that’s what Jesus did for us.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Notice that in the first verse, David pauses his thought in order to invite all of Israel into his jubilation. Remember that God made the nation of Israel into His chosen people by making a covenant with their ancestor Abraham. In Christ, the blessing of Abraham has now been extended to all nations. Therefore, as followers of Christ, we are God’s people, the church. David then is also inviting all Christians today to join in his song.

Verses 2-5 express the danger that both David and all of Israel were rescued from: a bloodthirsty mob and a raging flood. The imagery is intentionally poetic and ambiguous, but in our walk with Christ, we know the face of danger well. It comes through three general modes of temptation (Satan, the flesh, and the world), but the threat itself is singular: sin. John Piper concludes correctly that “nobody goes to hell because of Satan. The only reason we go to hell is sin” (Declare War on Sin). Ultimately, the demonic, worldly, and selfish temptations around and within us are only avenues toward sin. Sin is the danger.

The imagery of people rising up to attack is fitting, especially since God described Cain’s sin as crouching at his door like an animal stalking its prey (Genesis 4:7). God then declared that sin’s desire was contrary to Cain. Sin’s greatest lie is that it wants to make us happy. It promises to fulfill our deepest desires. We buy that lie every time we sin. We do not merely stumble into sin. We sin because we want to sin; we think that it will satisfy a need that God is not meeting. The LORD repeatedly exposes its falsehood to us, reminding us that sin’s desire is contrary to us, fundamentally against us.

Paul captures this notion profoundly with this simple truth: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The entire premise of wages is that they must be earned. A paycheck is the rightful fruition of a labor contract. Do a job; get paid. And sin is a work with death as the paycheck. Paul is exposing that truth precisely because we don’t often believe it. We lust because, for a moment at least, we think will be satisfied through him or her. We lie because we think it will put us in a better position. We gossip because we think it will keep us socially connected. Each sin presents a different promised end, but the wage is always the same: death. Like Levi and Simeon with the men of Shechem, sin offers false promises only to make us ready for slaughter.

Next, David describes his danger as a flood. Three times in verses 4-5 he claims that the torrent and raging waters would have drowned us. The significance of this imagery runs throughout Scripture. From Genesis 1, the waters (or deep) has a negative and chaotic connotation. As Creator, God brought light into darkness and order out of chaos. The global flood in Genesis 7-8 was, therefore, a symbolic undoing/reforming of creation. The sea is untamable to all but God, as any wise seaman knows.

Just as sin is as malevolent as an army of enemies, so sin is as destructive as a tsunami. The damage of sin is like a violent force of nature. However foolish it might be to underestimate the destructive capacity of raging waters; the foolishness of underestimating sin is far greater. Proverbs 6:27-29 uses the same logic (although with the element of fire) toward the sin of adultery:

Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished.

Are you aware of how immanent a danger sin is? Are you buying the lies that your sin only wants to make you happy? When was the last time you spent time truly thinking of the sin you’re wrestling with right now as enemy that wants you dead or as a torrent of raging waters that long for you to drown?

Or perhaps, you aren’t even wrestling with your sin. The greatest danger of all is the one that goes unnoticed. No army can be fought until their presence is scouted. No disease can be treated until it has been diagnosed. Ignorance does not cause danger to cease; it simply forfeits the opportunity of escape.

Brothers and sisters, sin’s utmost desire is our death. Are you aware of the danger?

OUR HELP IS IN THE NAME OF THE LORD

Yet despite the grave danger, our psalm is a song of thanksgiving, not lament, because David is exulting that God has not allowed these dangers to consume us. The key message proclaimed in verses 1, 6, and 8 is that the LORD Himself has saved us from certain death. In fact, as the psalmist begins, if God had not saved, we would have surely perished. Such was the hopelessness of our situation. In Ephesians 2, Paul went so far as to call us dead in sin and objects of God’s wrath.

Brothers and sisters, it is far too easy to forget what makes grace so amazing. We were as good as dead. We were without hope. Our sin is not just a problem for us. It was the problem. It wasn’t just one disease of many; it is a cancer that had infiltrated each organ system. Our plight against sin was the very definition of bleak. We blatantly defied the Author of life itself, the Almighty Creator. We attempted a coup against the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We deserved the flood. We deserved to fall into the hands of our enemies. We deserved death as our just wages. We earned it.

And yet God did not give us as prey to the teeth of our sin. He came to our aid. He became our helper, standing beside us.

Notice that God is on our side. Regardless of how anyone responds to God’s offer of salvation, the truth remains that sin is contrary to us while God is for us. Even though the LORD’s plans often involve pain and suffering in moment, He assures us that everything He does is in love. All suffering (whether caused by our sin or not) is the discipline of the LORD upon His children. Like a loving father and mother, discipline their children, not just by correcting bad behavior, but also by establishing godly rhythms and routines, so God uses everything to mold and shape us for His glory and our good. We must hold this truth with a death grip to our chest if we are to have any hope of overcoming the sin’s lie of happiness. Our sin wants us to believe that it is on our side and that God is our enemy. We must fight, literally, for our very souls to cling to the opposite truth. God is good, and He desires our good as well. We must wrestle with all our might to believe that.

But how does God show is love for us?

How does He reveal that He is on our side and that He is our helper?

He does so by breaking the snare of sin. What a powerful image in verse 7! Sin is fowler’s snare, and we are the birds. Like witless birds, we are being hunted for our lives, yet we are often utterly oblivious of the danger until the trap springs upon us. Gloriously, our God has broken the snare! He has shattered the trap of sin.

How did He break sin’s snare? He did it “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:14-15). Upon the cross, Jesus nailed the debt of our sins, putting to shame and triumphing over the very demonic powers which seek to incite to sin.

For the Christian then, the cross of Jesus Christ is not merely an avenue by which we may be free from our sin. Jesus’ substitutional death crushes and annihilates our sin. It has been disarmed, a snare now broken. The cross is, therefore, not only the sole avenue of forgiveness for past sin; it is also the only instrument of victory over present sin and the only hope of future freedom from sin entirely.

But this victory over sin can only come from via the name of the LORD. Paul captures the significance of our help being in God’s name when he declares “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). Salvation from sin can only come by crying out to the Savior.

But if the action is so simple, what prevents us from calling upon His name? Most often it is pride. Back when my wife and I first began dating, we were visiting my parents and needed to run some sort of errand. In a fit of nostalgia, we drove my car from high school, but after completing our task, we got back in the car only to find out that the key wouldn’t turn. Thinking that the steering wheel just needed some wiggling, I fiddled with it for a several minutes. Finally, after about thirty minutes of avoiding the inevitable, I called my father. His first suggestion was, of course, to ask whether I was using the right key. What an insult! That’s exactly why I avoided calling him in the first place! He was just going to assume the most basic problem… I quickly stopped using the wrong key, started the car, and headed home.

Unfortunately, most of us will waste far more than thirty minutes on unrepented sin, which is far more foolish. The prideful refusal to call upon God’s name for salvation is like remaining in a burning house because we can’t admit that we left the stove unattended. The sorrowful reality is that no one will be cast into hell who did not choose to be there. Many would simply rather face an eternity of torment rather than confess their helplessness. The cross, however, is predicated upon such helplessness. The glorious message of the gospel is that the LORD has rescued us from our sins through the death and resurrection of Christ because no other avenue of salvation existed.

The question, then, is not merely have you looked to the cross, but are you looking to it?

Do you see your sin as an immanent danger that only Jesus can save you from? Or do you view it as a pet that you have on a leash? The reality is that sin is more than happy to let you feel in control long enough to establish a good grip around your neck.

Have you cast yourself at the mercy of the LORD, and are you still doing so?

May each of us pray now and forever the words of Augustus Toplady:

Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling; naked, come to Thee for dress, helpless, look to Thee for grace: foul, I to Thy fountain fly, wash me, Savior, or I die.

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Unrestrained Moderation

In Book Four section 26 of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, he states:

You’ve seen that. Now look at this.

Don’t be disturbed. Uncomplicate yourself.

Someone has done wrong… to himself.

Something happens to you. Good. It was meant for you by nature, woven into the pattern from the beginning.

Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can from the present–thoughtfully, justly.

Unrestrained moderation.

Aurelius was, of course, the famous philosopher-emperor of the Roman Empire. He adhered to the philosophy of Stoicism, meaning (to butcher with over-simplification) that he held to a deterministic view of the world being governed by nature or by the logos.

As such, he repeatedly emphasized that we cannot change the people or circumstances around us, so why waste time worrying and trying to do so. Instead, we can only control ourselves; let us, therefore, do just that. From this reasoning, Stoics placed a tremendous weight upon the need for self-control and discipline.

As Christians, we can applaud (and even learn from) Stoicism’s thoughts on discipline and self-control, while Aurelius’ certainty that life will unfold as nature intended causes me to consider how much more I ought to trust the One who authored the laws of nature.

Christians will find many of Aurelius’ insights to be in line with wisdom, while disagreeing adamantly about others. He was, after all, not a Christian by any means.

Yet I could not help pausing at the phrasing of Aurelius’ thought above, “unrestrained moderation.” These seems to perfectly capture the aim of Stoic philosophy, and (because nearly everything believed has, at least, an element of truth to it), I think this also reflects well the Christian’s view of worldly, yet God-given, pleasures.

For us, the problem with pleasures is not about the pleasures themselves. Food and sex, for example, are natural gifts, designed by the Creator for our enjoyment. Food and sex only become sinful whenever we treat them as ultimate, whenever we abuse them. The reactionary tendency then becomes two extremes, either to forbid abused pleasures entirely (i.e. religious dietary restrictions or clerical celibacy) or to indulge ever more (trusting the grace of God to cover a multitude of our continuous sins or a simple denial that the body is of any importance whatsoever). Both of these responses are wicked, legalism and antinomianism alike.

The proper response for the Christian, who is no longer under the burden of the law in Christ, is certainly one of unrestrained moderation. We freely and gladly delight in the full array of flavors that God brought into existence for the benefit of our taste buds, but we will not be mastered by those delights. We rejoice in the marital bliss of intimacy between husband and wife, yet we guard and honor the marriage bed, refusing to let such a gift exceed its proper boundaries.

Or as Paul said to the Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 6:12 | “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.

In Christ, we are unrestrained to enjoy the gifts of God, but we do so in moderation, knowing how easily they might become gods instead.

The Vanity of Jonathan Edwards

I read from Stephen Nichols (in Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edwards’s Vision of Living in Between) that Jonathan Edwards was voted out of his church after moving the church to closed communion. The change backfired in part because Edwards failed to cultivate deep friendships within his congregation that would support him through such a major change. He certainly has such friendships, but they tended to be with other ministers via correspondence.

This struck me profoundly.

I’ve heard it said that some ministers are great preachers, while others are great pastors. The adage contains plenty of truth. While I would never call myself a “great” preacher, I certainly know that I am a better preacher than a pastor. Like Edwards, I am more comfortable around books than people. And while this was an area of failure for Edwards and an area of targeted growth for me, I can’t help lamenting the vanity of it all.

Edwards was a certainly a great writer and preacher. Indeed, he could be called one of the greatest American minds, and the benefit and blessing of his studies continue to endure. In fact, although I have yet to read anything by Edwards, I am a secondhand product of his legacy. Piper’s concept of Christian Hedonism played a significant role in reawakening my faith, and Edwards was a prime influence upon Piper’s development of that idea. Thus, in some ways, the Father used Edwards mightily through Piper to mold my faith.

But Edwards also succeeded in another realm: as husband and father. With eleven children, the Edwards’ home was busy to say the least, yet he made time to lead them in the Word and to open his home in hospitality. Nichols states:

All accounts concur: this was a home where love reigned (p. 42).

In short, Edwards succeeded as a preacher, writer, husband, and father, yet in part, he failed as a pastor. Of course, it is easy to write this off as being simply the will of God. Or we could call it yet another example of the scourge of humanity in a post-Genesis 3 world. After all, even the godliest of men had their failings. We’re broken people in a broken world. What’s new?

But have you ever really let that truth sink in?

Despite his best efforts and successes, Edwards will always be remembered as a flawed man with failures to his name (the owning of slaves being among the most glaring). Life is a balancing of many spinning plates, and some will break. We will never fully practice all of the doctrines that we believe. That inevitability is easy to understand but difficult to make peace with. Our greatest works are never enough to offset our failures because the failures don’t magically cease to exist. We will fail. Our efforts will never be sufficient. We cannot be good enough. We will never be enough. Attempting otherwise is a striving after wind. This is the vanity of life, and it is a grievous evil.

Of course, we say that is why grace is so wonderful. We are failures who cannot hope to truly succeed, but Christ’s death has paid the penalty of our sins while granting us His own righteousness.

This is the gospel, the good news.

Yet how often do we really let that bad news sink in first?

The gospel shines brightly against the backdrop of sin, brokenness, and despair, but I rarely take the time to truly despair of myself apart from Christ. This often leads to an underappreciated gospel.

But why did Edwards’ failure strike me so deeply?

I think it’s the combination of studying through the book of Ecclesiastes and feeling a similarity to Edwards. Like him, I am a husband, father, and pastor. I also feel the pull in my soul to write about the glories that I find in Scripture. And I understand the comfort of a richly composed page juxtaposed against the anxiety of being around others. I feel the same pull for time as him. How can I maximize my efforts as a husband without neglecting my children? How can I be a great preacher without neglecting the necessity of pastoring? How can I prioritize writing without compromising every other arena of life? When my body is laid in the ground, what areas of my life will be remembered as triumphs? Which will be my greatest failures? What actions of mine will stand as an eternal testament to my sinfulness? If Ecclesiastes teaches anything, it’s that this is all vanity, futile and a grievous evil.

As briefly mentioned, stewing in this vanity helps my perception of grace. All too often, I claim that I live for the glory, worship, and exaltation of God, but my motives are all too self-aggrandizing. Cognitively, I know my sin and my need of a savior, but there must be a hole in my heart because that truth continues to leak out.

The glories and exaltation of self are a mirage, careful compositions that are littered with clashing chords. I think of myself as Mozart when I am little more than a toddler slapping the keys. God, however, has been playing greatest masterpiece ever designed, and by His grace, I am given the honor of being used as a single note within that magisterial symphony of history.

In Christ, we become instruments, failures and all, for magnifying His greatness.

O then for grace to see the vanity of self clearly that I might behold more of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ!

 

Thus in recognizing our lowliness, ignorance and vanity, as well as our perversity and corruption, we come to understand that true greatness, wisdom, truth, righteousness and purity reside in God.  – John Calvin

Busy Sloth

Finally, the notion of sloth does not merely apply to idleness but also to busyness.

Before discussing busyness, we should note that idleness is a sinful counterfeit of God-glorifying rest.

Rest is worship; idleness is not.

Rest is found in coming to Christ; idleness is found in self-gratifying pursuits.

The same is also true of work and busyness.

Busyness is a sinful counterfeit of God-glorifying work.

Work is worship; busyness is not.

Work is accomplished only when we are working from the knowledge that Jesus worked perfectly in our place.

Busyness is legalism in action.

Busyness is sinful because it is a denial of God’s sovereignty. It is the act of living as if God is not in control and so we must attempt to take life by its reins.

Busyness is a rejection of God, while work is a glorifying act of worship. This means that work and rest are innately bound together, as are busyness and idleness.

Work and rest, as acts of worship, create a cycle of joy and renewal. Busyness and idleness, however, form a cycle of cynicism and decay. And it very much is a cycle.

We busy ourselves in order to prove our worth and value, only to collapse into idleness when we reach the end of our strength and will. We attempt to do everything, only to accomplish nothing. We fill each slot of our calendar in search of desperate productivity, only to waste our lives.

Once again, the problem is worship.

Busyness and idleness do not seek first God’s kingdom (Matthew 6:33); therefore, they are frivolous and trivial actions. They are a striving after the wind, a vanity of vanities. They never rise above this terrestrial plane.

The man of God, however, worships the LORD by submitting even menial tasks to God’s glory and kingdom, and he truly rests by coming to God for relief from the weariness of life. Thus, both his work and his rest are done to the glory of God. They are worshipful, and they are given the value of being holy and set apart for the LORD.

Tony Reinke speaks about this busy laziness as an epidemic of our society:

The slothful zombie may live a very busy life, but he does just enough to get things done, so he can get back to enjoying his comforts. Duties are what he performs, but comfort is what he craves. The zombie lives his routine in a fog, sleepwalking between weekends. Frederick Buechner writes this of the zombie: “Sloth is not to be confused with laziness. A slothful man may be a very busy man. He is a man who goes through the motions, who flies on automatic pilot. Like a man with a bad head cold, he has mostly lost his sense of taste and smell . . . people come and go, but through glazed eyes he hardly notices them. He is letting things run their course. He is getting through his life.” Richard John Neuhaus defines contemporary sloth as “evenings without number obliterated by television, evenings neither of entertainment nor of education, but a narcotic defense against time and duty.” This is sloth at its deadly best: trying to preserve personal comforts through the candy of endless amusements. Sloth is a chronic quest for worldly comfort that compounds boredom — boredom with God, boredom with people, boredom with life. The most common species of slothfulness is “lazy busy” — a full schedule endured in a spiritual haze, begrudging interruptions, resenting needy people, driven by a craving for the next comfort. It is epidemic in our day.

Reinke goes on to call sloth “a craving for personal comfort at all costs.”

It is this self-centeredness that kills.

The Sluggard cannot worship God, even when he is busy because he is too focused upon himself.

The call to the slothful, therefore, is not to work harder; rather, the Sluggard must submit both his work and rest to God.

 

Spiritual Sloth

Slothfulness, though, is not merely physical or intellectual. We can also be lazy and idle spiritually.

Spiritual sloth means being slothful to the things of God. Primarily, we see this in our reading of Scripture and prayer, which we tend to devote little (if any) time toward. While we may say that nothing is more important or necessary than hearing from and speaking to God, yet Scripture and prayer tend to be low on our list of priorities.

Douglas Wilson discusses the importance of recognizing our spiritual sloth in his book, The Seven Deadlies:

The sluggard is wiser in his own conceit than seven men that can render a reason” (Prov. 26:16). The condition of the contemporary church is exactly this—the result of spiritual sloth. We are wise in our own conceits. Like the church in Laodicea (Rev. 3:14–22), we think we can see, but we are blind. We think we are rich, but we are poor with regard to the things of God. We are impoverished and the worst thing is that we don’t know we are impoverished. We don’t have an understanding that this is our condition. Part of the reason is pressure from the unbelieving culture that is around us and our failure to withstand the pressure. In times of cultural deterioration, pressure is always applied to invert the moral order. Isaiah 5:20 says, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.” The world has always had lazy people, but historically they were always recognized as such. We live in a time when this sluggard-mentality is treated as something that should be praised. In 1950, the average fourteen-year-old kid had a vocabulary of 25,000 words. Today, the average kid has a vocabulary of 10,000 words, four of which appear to be cable, X-Box, Netflix, and dude. But how is this up and coming generation of the ignorati described to us in our public discourse?—street-smart, savvy, irreverent, and refreshing. Industry and diligence are mocked, and the baseball hat on backwards is the mark of a sage. We praise the lazy and exalt the sluggard. We do this even though we know that God mocks the ungodly, the lazy and those who refuse to work for what they desire. This means laziness is a sign of contempt for God.

Spiritual sloth is often found in our inability to wake up in the morning, which is fitting because Solomon directly ties the refusal to rise from bed to the sin of sloth (Proverbs 6:9).

Greg Morse wrote a wonderful article on desiringgod.org called The Great Wall of Cotton: Why We Hit Snooze on God about this very issue. The entire thing is worth reading, but I will cite a portion here to capture his main idea.

We slept in because we had forgotten who bids us to rise. The God we snoozed was puny, uninteresting, unworthy — not the God of the Bible. The God we snoozed seemed so distant, so unaware, so cold. So, we rolled over in our warm beds and resumed sleeping. But the God who summons his people from their slumber is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is worthy of our wakefulness. We rise when friends call. Scramble to attention if our boss rings. And yet, far too often we roll over when our Best Friend, our only Savior, our truest Love knocks on our doors each morning. We provoke our jealous Husband with the scraps of our day, throwing him our spare devotion as stale breadcrumbs are thrown at pigeons in the park. He is God. He deserves our firstfruits, not our microwaved leftovers.  He can ask, “Why do you call me ‘Lord’ and not rise when I bid you? Why do you call me ‘Teacher’ and not sit daily at my feet? Why do you call me ‘Husband’ and not seek my tender embrace?” The burning ones of heaven cannot look at him — none yawn or fall asleep in his presence. The God we draw near to is the God of Revelation 5. As the Lamb ascends his throne, all of heaven screams, “Worthy!” (Revelation 5:9, 12). This scene is not one for sleeping infants or adults. What must this heavenly host think when they peer over the edge of heaven and see us lie in bed, as if dead, before him? This is not the holy deadness that resulted from John meeting with the exalted Christ whose chest shone with a golden sash, eyes burned like flames of fire, and whose voice thundered like the flood of many waters (Revelation 1:12–17). No, they see the deadness of Eutychus who, when Paul preached into the night, sank into a deep sleep, fell from his windowsill, and plummeted to his death (Acts 20:9).  How shocking it must be for heaven to be lost in fierce worship of God, and then to see many of us — his blood-bought people — daily meet him with a tap of a button and a rolling over.

Just as physical sloth tends to create poverty, so spiritual sloth causes spiritual poverty.

Do you give you make time for God?

Do you give the best of yourself and your efforts to God, or as Morse said, do you give Him your microwaved leftovers?

Intellectual Sloth

Our society may still (generally) value physical labor, but it is increasingly leaving behind intellectual labor. Leigh Bortins, in her book The Core, compares us to the early Americans by stating that “overall, the same percentage of Americans read Common Sense in the late 1770s that watch the Super Bowl today” (p. 29)!

I am convinced that intellectual laziness is not a matter of intelligence but of work. The human mind is capable of far more than we assume, and so is the “common” man. Remember that Jesus chose common men, ordinary laborers, to be the foundation of His church. Peter and John were mere fishermen, but under the power of the Holy Spirit, the religious leaders of their day “perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Of course, both men authored books of Scripture that reveal this boldness to us as well.

We must remember, therefore, that the Bible is not for scholars alone but for every man and woman. The riches of God’s Word are not vaulted to all but the theologian. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek (that is, common Greek), and Christianity has a long, historical precedent of attracting and educating the lower classes of society, both valuing and teaching them.

Teaching all people is crucial to Christianity because we believe that God has revealed Himself to all people through the knowledge of Himself. A relationship with God necessarily demands a knowledge of God. I can have no relationship with someone I do not know. Neither can I divorce loving God from knowing God, and knowing God requires the intellect.

Presidential Debates

The intellectual sloth of our day is made quite evident in politics. Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, uses the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas to accentuate how far cultural literacy has declined. The structure of these debates was for Candidate #1 to deliver an hour long speech, Candidate #2 would then provide an hour and a half rebuttal, and finally Candidate #1 would close with his half-hour counter-rebuttal.

Consider two quotations Postman cites from Lincoln and Douglas in these debates.

At one point during his speech, Douglas was met with a particularly lengthy applause to which he responded:

My friends, silence will be more acceptable to me in the discussion of these questions than applause. I desire to address myself to your judgment, your understanding, and your consciences, and not to your passions or your enthusiasms (p. 45).

How scandalous that a politician would actively appeal to the judgment, understanding, and consciences of his listeners, instead of merely inciting their passions and enthusiasms.

And here is a sampling of how Lincoln spoke during these debates:

It will readily occur to you that I cannot, in half an hour, notice all the things that so able a man as Judge Douglas can say in an hour and a half; and I hope, therefore, if there be anything that he has said upon which you would like to hear something from me, but which I omit to comment upon, you will bear in mind that it would be expecting an impossibility for me to cover his whole ground (p. 46).

This kind of language is rarely employed for writing today and certainly not for speaking! Debates can no longer be held in this manner because we are too intellectually lazy to care. We need politics to be mingled with entertainment in order to hold our attention for any significant length of time.

Once more, the problem is NOT intelligence itself. Lincoln and Douglas were speaking to the general public, not society’s intellectuals. The problem is with our expectations and efforts, not our intellectual capacity.

As Christians, if we require that the proclamation of God’s very Word be no longer than half an hour, how can we bear to focus on political discourse for an hour and a half!

Knowing the Word

New English translations of the Bible continue to appear, promising to be translated into more readable language. The problem, however, with our comprehension of the Bible is not with the translations themselves but with how the biblical authors wrote. The letters of the New Testament, for example, are composed of densely-constructed logical arguments, but we wrestle to connect each dot of reasoning because our minds are now used to news-segment-sized nuggets of thought that do not exceed 140 characters. We cannot understand the Bible because we do not give ourselves to learning how to understand it.

Paul, for example, was immensely intelligent, but his letters were not written to the scholastic elite. He wrote to all believers, educated or uneducated, that they might know the truth of the gospel by reading for themselves or having his letters read to them. The God-breathed truth is more than accessible so long as we are willing to work at understanding it.

To be fair, a significant portion of this problem arrives from the expectations of education not being high enough. When people are expected to struggle and/or fail, they tend to do just that. Education, like most of life, both rises and falls on the basis of expectations. Bortins states as much:

Parents have forgotten that a century ago, the average nine-year-old worked hard enough to earn his or her own way in life. I wish every child had a life so blessed with ease that he thought loading the dishes into a dishwasher was hard work, but that is not reality. Parents need to stop believing excuses from poor Johnny that learning is too hard, or that he can’t pay attention, or that practicing penmanship is boring, or that math is repetitive. Tough. Life is repetitive. We are crippling our children’s brains instead of providing the extensive mental exercise they need for normal development. Mental exercise with a core of quality material is comparable to physical exercise with a healthy diet.

 

Sloth: the overlooked sin

Go to the ant, O sluggard;
consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief,
officer, or ruler,
she prepares her bread in summer
and gathers her food in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man.
(Proverbs 6:6-11 ESV)

Here Solomon speaks to the Sluggard, the slothful person who refuses to work. He calls his attention to the ant, demanding that he learn from her. Without an overseer looking over her shoulder, the ant gathers food and works diligently. The Sluggard, on the other hand, is pictured as sleeping the day away. He creates excuses in verse 10, saying that it is only a little sleep, only a little rest. But poverty will befall him like a robber.

The application of these verses is near infinite, and I find the sin of sloth to be deceptively prevalent in both my life and the society at large. I will, therefore, do my best to make sense of my scattered thoughts regarding this sin.

Let’s address two questions: 1) What is sloth? and 2) Why is it a big deal?

First, the sin of sloth is the refusal to do God-glorifying work. Adam was given work in Eden (Genesis 1:28), so work is not a byproduct of sin. Work is difficult and does not always bear fruit because of sin, but God designed us for the activity of work. By denying work, the Sluggard is, thus, denying his role as an image-bearer of God. We should never denigrate the sinfulness of sloth by assuming that it is merely laziness. No, it is, at heart, a rejection of God’s designed order for creation.

Second, because sloth rejects the godliness of work, slothfulness is problem of worship. We worship God whenever we joyfully embrace what He has ordained for and commanded of us. We withhold worship whenever we disobey God’s commands and designs. Paul displays the importance of this in his warning and exhortation to the Thessalonians:

2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 | Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

The Thessalonians were wrestling against the sin of sloth (or idleness). Many in the church were refusing to work (likely waiting for Christ’s return). Paul, therefore, gives them the command if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. He even encourages them to keep away from those who refuse to obey this command (thereby issuing church discipline).

Sloth is, therefore, not a sin that can be overlooked or taken lightly. But its sinfulness is subtle rather than overt, which makes it easily ignored while we focus on “more important” sins. Yet sin is sin, and all sin is a rebellion against God. My intent over the three following posts is to provide clarity on three areas where sloth is prevalent in the U.S. culture. These forms of sloth will be as follows: intellectual sloth, spiritual sloth, and busy sloth.