Self Distrust

Reflections on James 4:9 —

“Be miserable, mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom.”

Not exactly a Norman Vincent Peale inspirational quote of the day. But it’s in the Bible, written by James, half-brother of Jesus, a church elder, a pillar of faith, and inspired by the Living, Loving, Almighty God.

Why is James so gloomy here? Does he really want me to go around with a mopey look on my face and rain on everyone’s parade? I don’t think so, and I’ll explain why later. For starters, consider this: throughout his letter, James points out “blind spots” in us–ways that we hurt others or offend God that we don’t even realize. Pretty serious offenses in some cases. His advice to “be miserable” centers of grasping the magnitude of sin.  It’s good for us to hear. James is audacious here, like he is throughout his letter. He hits us between the eyes, wakes us up, catches our attention.  If I’m driving and I hear a funny noise coming from the engine, my mind will work overtime to convince me that I have nothing to worry about, even though history has proved it’s always a good idea to get it checked.  I need a “check engine” light to get me to do anything about it.  In James 4:9, James is being “check engine” light.

I think we’ve grown accustomed to a false belief that we’re pretty good on our own. As a result, our need for God, our utter dependency on Him, has waned. God is fully capable of sustaining us and our every need, and He welcomes our dependency on Him. But for the most part, we don’t really think we need Him.

We’ve heard many times that when we’re lost and confused we should follow our heart. We’re told that the heart–that voice within us, the seat of our personality, and our very soul–can and should be trusted above all else. For centuries, poets, philosophers, musicians, and authors have encouraged this:

  • “Trust yourself. Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.” — Golda Meir
  • “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” — Jane Austen
  • “Two worlds, one family, trust your heart, let fate decide…” — Phil Collins

What I’m about to tell you flies in the face of there and every other positive thinker, every self-help book, every humanistic philosopher that ever existed. Are you ready?

Never trust yourself.

Do I like being a Debbie Downer? Am I a self-hater? Do I not trust anybody or anything? Am I advocating a lifestyle of insecurity, fear, and doubt? Not at all. I’m a believer in living confidently, contentedly, and courageously. It’s just that I don’t believe my heart should be the source of that confidence, contentment, and courage.

In his landmark book, Knowing God, renowned theologian J. I. Packer coined the phrase, “self distrust.” By this, I think he means having a realistic and honest idea of just how bad the human heart is, and to be wary of relying on it.  God says this about the man who trusts in himself[1]:

“Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind
And makes flesh his strength,
And whose heart turns away from the Lord.
“For he will be like a bush in the desert
And will not see when prosperity comes,
But will live in stony wastes in the wilderness,
A land of salt without inhabitant.”

Contrary to what you may have been told, trusting in yourself is not the best thing for you. Have you driven through Arizona and noticed the tumbleweed scattered throughout the sandy, dry land?  That is what life looks like for the one who trusts in himself.  It is an unfulfilling, unprosperous, and disillusioning life.

You may be saying, “if I can’t trust myself, who can I trust?” What I will attempt to do in this blog is to make the argument that your heart is not to be trusted. I won’t leave you in the lurch, however. There is hope, for the more you grasp just how wayward your heart is, the more you will see your need to depend on God–a very good place to be, for God is merciful and more than capable of sustaining you, and He will draw near to those who draw near to Him.

Blind Spots

James’ command to “be miserable” culminates a series of insightful cautions James uses to expose the blind spots he noticed in the early church. One thing reading James’ letter should do for us is make us more painfully familiar with the pervasiveness and weight of our sin. We should see more clearly what kind of evil our heart is capable of. Notice some of the things he says in his letter:

  • You may think you’re praying faithfully, but if, in your heart, you doubt God is who He says He is, you are like driftwood, aimlessly floating along (James 1:6-8)
  • You may think your business success means you are blessed, but you are seeking a temporal treasure that will disappoint you, and in the end, you will fade away (1:9-11)
  • By catering to the wealthy, attractive person and ignoring the slob, you are both judgmental and selfish (2:1-12)
  • Your tongue is destructive and dwells in the pit of hell itself (James 3:6)
  • Your love of worldly pleasures is hostility to God, akin to adultery, making you God’s enemy (4:1-4)
  • When you judge and criticize others, you’re really presumptuous, putting yourself above the law and in the place of God (4:11-12)

If you’re a perfect person, and can honestly say none of these apply to you, you can sign off now and walk away. This blog is not for you. But if you’re like the rest of the human race, you see yourself in these. They are weighty matters. No wonder James says, “be miserable, mourn and weep.” No wonder he encourages you not to be flippantly lighthearted all the time, but instead “turn your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.”

Why are we so capable of such double-mindedness, looking good on the outside, yet sinning on the inside in such a subtle way in so many areas of life? It’s because we’ve been tricked by the very thing we’ve been told to trust all our lives…our heart. The most telling description of the human heart is found in one of God’s many conversations with His prophet, Jeremiah[2]:

“The heart is deceptive and desperately sick, who can understand it?”

Ouch. Well, there it is in black and white, a pretty harsh criticism of the human heart. If you’re sitting there, disgusted and in denial, I don’t blame you. God just threw under the bus the very thing you’ve been told to trust to your dying day. But God is the One who invented the human heart in the first place. Please listen to His side of the story.  Let’s look at some other passages that shed light on the deceptiveness and sickness of the human heart.

Deception

From time to time, Michele and I like to watch the “24” series on Amazon Prime. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it; it’s a little dark at times!  But the writers of 24 are particularly good at creating shifty characters who feign allegiance, then double-cross and backstab at just the right moment to gain the upper hand.  There was one season where the character Tony Almeda had us believing he was a bad guy, then a good guy, then a bad guy again. As it ended up, Tony was just using people all along to get what he wanted!  Our heads were spinning by the end of that season.

No one likes to be deceived. But there’s something even worse than being deceived by someone else. The worst kind of deception…is self-deception. Self-deception is being so convinced of something you become blind to everything else.

Hannibal was an outstanding military leader who defeated Roman legions time and time again. At Cannae, Hannibal had his center column of Spaniards and Gauls retreat to make the Roman consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro believe they were winning, and thus advance their legions in pursuit. What they didn’t know was that Hannibal had placed battle-hardened Punic soldiers on both flanks. The Romans were marching right into the jaws of a two-edged pincer. They blindly continued in this deception until it was too late, and Hannibal encircled the hapless legionnaires, wiping them out completely. It is regarded by some as the greatest tactical feat in military history, and it was all because Paullus and Varro over confidently deceived themselves.

Like Hannibal snowballing Paullus and Varro, our heart is especially good at deceiving us, making us believe wrong is right and bad is good.

Treachery

Years ago, the nation of Israel was actually two separate kingdoms: Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Israel was known for its unfaithfulness to God. They were unabashedly evil and made no pretense that they were serving God. They were wicked and they knew it.

On the other hand, Judah claimed loyalty to God. They had the temple of Solomon in their capital city and they made yearly pilgrimages there. At least on the surface, it appeared that they were faithfully honoring God by their ritualistic, ceremonial sacrifices. But under the hood, they were corrupt and devious. There was adultery, oppression, and idolatry happening all over the place, even within the ranks of their political and religious leadership.  Even so, Judah believed they were fine. They carried out their religious services every week and loved their temple.

But their pretentious faith did not fool God. God had Jeremiah go to the temple gate to speak out to His people and call out their treachery. This is where the phrase “has my house become a den of robbers?”[3] The people were living offensive lifestyles, yet coming to the temple once a week as sort of a way to assuage God, turning their assembly into a gathering place of thieves and bandits. To these, and to any Christian living this kind of double standard, God says, “amend your ways!”[4].

When God discussed the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah with His prophet, Jeremiah, He declared, “faithless Israel has proved herself more righteous than treacherous Judah”[5]. How could such a godless nation as Israel be considered righteous at all, let alone more righteous than Judah–a nation that at least attempted to honor God? For certain, God hates the treacherous heart, even more than wickedness. When we live pretentiously–feigning loyalty, praising Him with our mouths, but dishonoring Him by living out of our selfish, corrupt heart’s ambitions–it is worse in His eyes than if we just flatly denied Him.

One way we can see treachery in our own lives is by evaluating what we say. James points out our double standard–we pride ourselves in how well we sing praises to God on Sunday, and yet turn around on Monday and unrighteously criticize our family, neighbors, and coworkers. When James says, “from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing…my brethren, these things ought not to be this way,”[6] he’s pointing out the treachery in our conduct. We claim belief in God, yet we say the first thing that comes to mind, doing whatever our heart tells us to do, even if it’s dishonoring to God.

By the way, one of the cool things God does for us is create circumstances that reveal our true self. If He sees His people living a double standard, He sends things into our path that expose what’s going on within us, and help us move on to a greater state of integrity and fidelity in our faith. These are the “trials” James speaks of, which I discuss in the blog entitled, “Trials”.

Desperately Sick

Not only is our heart deceptive and treacherous, it is also desperately sick. God says, “who can understand it?” The evil lurking within our heart is unfathomable.  If you look closely in James’ lesson on the tongue, you will actually see evidence of evil in our heart[7]:

“…the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.”

James isn’t talking about the burning sensation you feel when you bite into a jalapeno. And he’s not saying this great evil lies in that muscle sitting between your teeth. He’s agreeing with Jesus, who tells us that the tongue is just an outlet of whatever is in your heart[8]. It’s your heart that is “the very world of iniquity” and that is “set on fire by hell.”

Sometimes in scripture, authors refer to your heart as “flesh” or your “fleshly nature”. Paul provides a perfect contrast between the outcomes our flesh is capable of and what dependence on God’s Spirit can accomplish. Here’s what he says our flesh can do[9]:

“Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these…”

By contrast, Paul says only by submitting to the Spirit will you experience the ability to love, have joy and peace, be patient, and so on. Contrary to what you’ve been told, trusting in your heart won’t get you love, joy, and peace.  Those things only come when you trust someone other than yourself…someone we’ll discover in just a bit.

Finally, it’s important to note that the sickness in your heart has been there since conception. It didn’t come after a certain age and you didn’t learn it from your environment.  David writes[10],

“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.”

The debate as to whether homosexuality is a choice or something you are born with is a difficult topic, worthy of debate. But there is no doubt about sin. According to David, you were definitely born with it. You don’t learn sin over time. Two year olds don’t have to be trained to say “mine”–they just do it. Sin is our natural response because we were born with sinful hearts.

Internal Warfare

A Christian is one to whom God has given His Spirit. God’s Spirit lives in you; He abides in your soul. Our old, corrupt heart is still there, too, but so is the Spirit. We have already seen how the two are at war with each other, each one vying to gain authority over you[9]. Life for a believer is all about learning how to listen to the Spirit and submit to His authority, rather than doing what comes naturally and listening to the heart.

There is no “improving” of the heart after becoming a Christian. It’s still just as bad as it ever was, and it is still very influential, very selfishly motivated and appealing. I am easily persuaded to listen to my heart and ignore the Spirit that is trying to catch my attention. Paul calls this “quenching the Spirit”[11]. And I should not feel bad, like I’m the only one who struggles to say “no” to my selfish heart. Paul himself, arguably the greatest Christian of all time, lamented over this as well[12]:

“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.”

Let me comment on why I don’t read a lot of Christian “self-help” books. These authors are well-meaning, but frankly, any advice that doesn’t start and end with, “your heart is incapable of good…you can’t do it yourself…be in complete submission to the Holy Spirit and total dependence on God” isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

Utter Dependence

James’ instruction to “be miserable” sounds like an invitation to despair and grief.  But cheer up!  God is merciful.  Even though He knows your sin problem, He still invites you to “draw near” to Him, and promises to “draw near to you” if you do.

Since you can’t trust your heart, trust in something reliable. Trust in God, and the Spirit He gives you. The greatest kept secret in contemporary Christianity is the access we have to power and wisdom of God in the form of the Holy Spirit.  He is real inspiration for change and renewal. We can try to stop an addiction on our own, but in the end, we will not succeed.  Only the Spirit is powerful enough to put to death the “deeds of the body”[13].  Only He can thwart the schemes and desires of your evil heart in your time of need.

Mourn the sin in your soul, maintaining a healthy awareness of its pervasiveness and offensiveness to God. Draw near to God by “cleansing your hands and purifying your hearts”–in other words, confess your wrongful deeds and invite Him to help you make changes. As Jesus said[14],

“It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

It’s OK to be sick. Mourn and weep your heart’s deceptiveness and disease. I have found that the older I get, the more I realize how utterly sinful my heart is. I’m OK with this because the good result is, I know I need Christ more and more every day. As John the Baptist once said, “He must increase; I must decrease”[15]. I think this is the essence of being “poor in Spirit” which Jesus says is the only way you can experience the Kingdom of Heaven[16].

 

Notes:

  1. Jeremiah 17:5-6
  2. Jeremiah 17:9
  3. Jeremiah 7:8-11
  4. Jeremiah 7:3
  5. Jeremiah 3:6-11
  6. James 3:10
  7. James 3:6
  8. Luke 6:45, Matthew 12:34
  9. Galatians 5:16-23
  10. Psalm 51:5
  11. I Thessalonians 5:19
  12. Romans 7:18-20
  13. Romans 8:13
  14. Mark 2:17
  15. John 3:30
  16. Matthew 5:3

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