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Imagine surviving a shipwreck in a remote region of the South Pacific. You come ashore on a tiny island and discover that you are the only survivor. A suitcase washes up on the beach, and inside you find a Bible. What do you think: Could you “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18) in isolation from other Christians, or for that matter, in isolation from other human beings?

Alone on an island, you could learn a lot about God through His written Word, and your love for Him could flourish. But there are things about yourself in relation to God that you might not learn very well.

The Apostle Paul tells us that the works of the flesh include “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, . . . and things like these” (Gal. 5:20–21). In contrast, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. . . . Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (vv. 22–23). If there’s no one else around, there will be no jealousy, enmity, rivalries, dissensions, or envy. There will also be no one to try your patience and no one to draw out kindness or gentleness.

Alone on your island, you might examine yourself in terms of why you don’t love God with your whole heart. But it’s when you don’t love your brother, whom you can see, that you begin to see more clearly your lack of love for God, whom you can’t see.

Some things in life can be learned only in relationship to other people. It’s when you realize you haven’t loved your neighbor as you ought that you begin to ask: Why did I have that fit of anger? Why do I feel such enmity against that person? Why do I have such a hard time loving or forgiving or even being kind to someone who repeatedly treats me with disrespect? What is motivating my responses to other people?

“The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Prov. 20:5). Wise counsel, but how does he draw out the purpose (motives, reasons) in his heart? Sinful responses don’t happen for no particular reason. There are always reasons for the things we say and do, even if we don’t see the reasons clearly. Those reasons are not on the surface of the well and therefore are not easy to draw out. They run deep.

The invitation to be known completely stems from confidence in the character of God.

How often have you responded, “I don’t know,” when asked, “Why did you do that?” Even when we try to discern our motives, it’s hard to see the “sin behind the sin” because we’re not impartial examiners. Out of a deep desire to feel good about ourselves, we don’t want to look too closely at the motives that drive our behavior.

Ultimately, the only One who knows us completely is God. The psalmist writes:

O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. (Ps. 139:1–4)

In one sense, this psalm is tremendously comforting: Before I was born, God knew me. He knit me together in my mother’s womb. He determined the number of my days. God knows me completely. Nothing in my life is hidden from God. He knows the good, the bad, and the ugly about me, and He still loves me.

In another sense, Psalm 139 is terrifying. There are thoughts, attitudes, and desires I’m aware of in myself that I would be ashamed to have other people know. People can see what I do and hear what I say, but they don’t know what is driving my heart. For that matter, I can’t always figure out what’s driving my heart. I can hide the sin inside from other people and even from myself, but not from God. He knows me completely. There is nowhere in the universe where I can hide from Him.

Yet, with amazing vulnerability, the psalmist invites a thorough examination of his heart: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (vv. 23–24).

Our ability to willingly and honestly face the truth about our motives depends on what we really believe about the gospel. We sing: “Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream. All the fitness He requires is to feel your need of Him.”

If your conscience is weakened by a longing for “fitness”—that God’s approval of you depends on what you do to make yourself acceptable—then honesty about your heart’s motives will be too threatening. Boldness to face the truth about your heart grows out of confidence in the justifying grace of God in Jesus Christ. If God is for you, who can stand against you (Rom. 8:31)? If nothing in all creation can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus, that includes your sin.

The invitation to be known completely stems from confidence in the character of God. He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Ps. 103:8). “If God is for us,” we don’t have to be afraid of what God will find in our hearts. The search is not for His benefit but for ours. God already knows the motives and misplaced desires behind our outward sin. For God to show us what’s driving our hearts and to lead us toward repentance is for our good, that we might be set free from the controlling power of remaining sin.

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Leaving a Church Peaceably

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From the January 2020 Issue
Jan 2020 Issue