How radical does God expect us to be to rid ourselves of sin?
One of the most challenging passages in the Bible must be this passage where Jesus tells us to cut off our hand or foot or tear out our eye…..if they cause us to sin rather than continuing sinning!
What does Jesus mean?
We need to break this down to understand it:
First, what is sin?
Second, what did Jesus mean by cutting off limbs?
Third, what might this mean for us today?
Firstly, what is sin?
‘Sin’ has got a bit of a bad name in the Western World in recent years. It has become a laughable euphemism for having illicit sex, whereas, in fact, sin means humans being or acting in a way which is offensive to God their creator.
But sometimes we don’t recognise that what we are doing is offensive to God because it is not just breaking the 10 commandments; not just failing to love God and failing to love neighbour, but also having pretensions to being equal to God: for example, in deciding for ourselves the scope of what is right and wrong rather than relying upon what God has revealed to us in the Bible.
Sin manifests itself in numerous different ways. In Galatians 5 St Paul gives examples
of sin (in summary):
debauchery (any sex outside marriage)
idolatry (worshipping created thing rather than God, which could include our houses, our jobs or even our children):
and its not just the doing of these things which is the problem.
In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5, Jesus makes clear that even thinking, plotting about such things is just as sinful as the act itself.
Jesus says that the inevitable consequence of all sin is destruction; so its madness to indulge in it…when a happy fulfilled eternal life is on offer.
It is important to remind ourselves at this point that there is a difference between sin and temptation, but there might not be much in it: possibly a few split seconds.
As Martin Luther said ‘I cannot stop birds flying around my head but I can stop them nesting in my hair’. So if you don’t own it, you don’t commit it. Its the dwelling on the sin in our consciousness; allowing it to take up our thoughts; letting it marinate and not just dismissing it, which is the problem….
The other point to make is that everyone sins in some way, particularly in this area of thought. Everyone without exception.
But the good news is that those who have a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ, receive his forgiveness, not because they are free from sin, but because the direction of their lives is to serve and please God in the way he requires.
This is what the gospel is about! This is the good news!
So success in dealing with sin, is not about freeing your life of it (to do so completely might be impossible) but rather the journey that you are taking.
So, firstly we need to RECOGNISE what sin is – that it is acting in a way which is offensive to God, including as much the thought about it as the act itself.
And secondly, what is Jesus saying in this passage?
Jesus is saying that, although we are forgiven as sinners by God, Jesus is saying that we are expected to deal radically with sin when we are tempted by it. We are to cut the causes of it out of our lives. This is something that we choose to do, to break sin’s hold on us.
But is Jesus saying that we are literally to cut off our foot because we have walked into a place which might cause us to sin, for example, for those addicted to alcohol, that might mean walking into a pub? It’s thought that some Christians in the Ancient World took Jesus literally and actually cut off a hand or foot or put out an eye.
However Jesus cannot have meant this literally because however drastic it is cutting off a limb as a means of stopping one sinning it would not be very effective: you still have another eye, another hand, another foot to hobble across the threshold of the Cricketers…..
So it is clear that Jesus meant this metaphorically. He is saying that we have to deal with sin radically to prevent it ever happening again and it may be very painful to do so.
But Jesus says that it is better for us in the end to deal with it at source: To act completely radically.
So, firstly we must recognise what sin is
Secondly, we must deal with it RADICALLY
Thirdly, what might recognising and radically dealing with sin look like in the modern world?
This report appeared a couple of weeks ago on the BBC and has caused a lot of controversy:
The BBC reported that Kirstie Allsopp had smashed her children’s iPads after they broke her rules about screen time. She said she took action after her sons played games outside their permitted time. She told Channel 5’s Jeremy Vine: “In June I smashed my kids’ iPads,….we had made all sorts of rules and all sorts of times when we said you can’t play them and all those rules got broken and in the end I said: ‘Right that is it, I have to physically (break them).”
Of course, Kirsty was making a choice for her children but that is partly what parenting is about: making choices for them until they can decide for themselves.
But what about smashing our own I phones or I pads if they are leading us to sin?
It is so easy to get into a habit which is difficult to break unless dealt with radically.
I have spoken with one man who had become addicted to on line pornography through his I phone. Apparently, you can’t get parental controls on your I Phone, as the way to fix this problem on a PC would be to get someone else to set the password on your parental controls.
One answer might be to have a mobile phone which doesn’t have a link to the internet; it is possible to get such a thing.
Another husband told me how his wife was so incensed with his constant use of his blackberry when they were together that she threw it out of the window on a skiing holiday into the snow….gone for ever.
Travelling on business, one Christian I heard about, always gives the TV remote control from the hotels that he is staying in to reception with instructions not to replace it during his stay.
Some of our problems may not be so relatively easy to solve as it is by the destruction of the cause of the sin – the smashing of the I Pad.
I have had to give up a number of things in my life. None of them were sinful in themselves, although they were bad for my health, but there were often regrets afterwards as to what they had led me to do.
But they are an example of how to give things up. How to take that radical action which we need to deal with sin, how we must cut off our sin so that it does not recur. What I have found is that I find it difficult to give things up in moderation….unless I completely give them up; unless I cut them off completely. I cannot do things by halves, if I am to do them at all. There may be wonderful people out there who can really discipline themselves to choose to act in moderation, but I am not one of them.
Smoking was the first thing, forty years ago – it wasn’t a question of cutting down – I had to go cold turkey and completely stop and moving to Dubai as a ‘non-smoker’ helped.
Then there was alcohol. Again I had to cut it out completely. ‘Why can’t you just have one glass of wine occasionally people would say’ but break the inflexible policy and soon it is back to half a bottle an evening. For me it helps to build a barrier and every day from that decision it becomes easier in my experience, except in new social situations.
It is a rule. A rule of life if you like.
But that’s easy, in comparison with changing the heart. Stopping being angry in our thoughts about our neighbour; stopping worshipping things other than God.
You see the real challenge is how do we stop sinning in our hearts, even if there is nothing to cut off; no i pad to smash; no cigarette, alcohol, or cake to decline, that would break our addiction to sin.
How do we stop doing the things which we know are wrong but we seem incapable of doing anything about? What radical move can we make to follow Jesus’ teaching?
There is a solution which is in its way as radical as chopping off your hand, because it could have an impact on how people see us. Amazingly (because I did not notice this when I prepared this talk) the answer is given in our reading from James 5 today – verse 16….
Its called ‘accountability’. We need to have a very good friend who is pointing spiritually in the same direction as we are; someone who is a Christian, to whom we can tell, to whom we can reveal, what is going on in our hearts, in the sure knowledge that it will never be spoken about to anyone else. Who can pray for us.
Because as soon as we speak the words out to this trusted friend, the terrible envy that we have; the excruciating anger that we feel; the lust that seeps through our bones; its power over us starts to weaken; we see it for the pathetic demonic thing that it is.
This sharing is after all one of the basic principles behind Alcoholics Anonymous (step 5) and the other groups set up to combat other addictions: disclosure to another human being.
As we recognise what sin is in our lives; as we deal radically with it; and reveal the secrets of our hearts to another, we will have the Lord’s help to change the way we think. And as we change our thoughts then our actions will change as well, which will lead to a new pattern of habits. And as we follow this new behaviour, our character will change and our lives will be transformed.
38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
Temptations to Sin
42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 “For everyone will be salted with fire.50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”