February 20, 2005

The Love of Christ Compels Us to Set Aside
Unhealthy Chains
Acts 19:8-20

I well remember a certain night at camp soon after I first became a Christian. The speaker that evening challenged us—primarily teenagers—to abandon those possessions and activities that hindered our spiritual development. “If you want to follow Jesus,” he said, “then get rid of whatever holds you back.” When he finished, several of my friends and I responded to his passionate plea by burning most of our favorite record albums! A group of us stood there and watched as our prized recordings—Janis Joplin, Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad, Jethro Tull—went up in smoke. And while it is true that I have occasionally wished that I had a few of those records back again—I went hog-wild in my zeal!—what my friends and I did that night did in fact constitute a significant and beneficial movement of the spiritual life. The love of Christ compelled us to set aside unhealthy chains.

As we think about Christian formation, we often think in terms of addition rather than subtraction. We need to pray more, give more, read more, and witness more. We need, in other words, to DO more. What we sometimes fail to realize, however, is that spiritual growth can likewise be cultivated through subtraction. If, as Ignatius so clearly reminded us nearly 500 years ago, everything in life either pulls us toward God or pushes us away, then it only stands to reason that following Jesus involves identifying those items that push us from God and trimming them away. Harmful habits. Idolized possessions. Distracting preoccupations.

This principle of trimming away the useless and the bad—setting aside unhealthy chains—is evident throughout the Bible. The people of Israel are repeatedly instructed by their priests, prophets and sages to “put away” anything that keeps them from God. “… put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt,” Joshua announced just prior to his death (Josh. 24:14). “Wash yourselves,” Isaiah suggested years later. “Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;… (1:16).”

In the New Testament, such instructions seem only to multiply. “Put away your former way of life,” Paul writes in Ephesians 4:22, and “clothe yourself with the new self.” Tear off those old and smelly garments—sweaty shorts after a long run, a filthy shirt following a full day’s work cleaning a stable—and clothe yourselves with the new self. “Rid yourselves of all sordidness and…wickedness,” James phrased it, and so did Peter—“Rid yourselves…and long for the pure, spiritual milk (1 Peter 2:1).” Subtraction. Setting aside those practices and possessions that are either outright sinful or simply unbeneficial. Setting aside everything that slows us down and obstructs our growth as Jesus’ disciples. This same principle is vividly illustrated for us here in Acts 19:8-20.

As Paul continues on his third missionary journey, we find him now in the city of Ephesus, where he in fact spent more than two years—a rather long time given the vast number of stops during his travels—in ministry. God, Luke informs us, did wonders through Paul in Ephesus. The sick were healed and evil forces subdued. The miraculous activities associated with Paul’s work in Ephesus reached such proportions that, according to 19:17, the residents of the city were awestruck. Both Jews and Gentiles praised the Lord Jesus, and many believers confessed their sins and openly acknowledged their sinful practices. For people to make themselves so vulnerable, to stand before other believers and confess their wrong-doings, you know that the Holy Spirit was at work. That is not a common sight. It is not easy, as virtually all of us know, to admit to others when we have sinned.

The response of these people, however, did not stop with simple confession, nor did they merely follow Jesus through practicing addition. Look what they do—they practice the spiritual discipline of subtraction. They take their unhealthy books and burn them publicly, even though those very books were worth a virtual fortune! Fifty thousand silver coins, by all accounts, were the equivalent of fifty thousand days’ wages, or perhaps five million dollars!! Trim, trim, trim. Cutting. Subtracting. Removing all obstacles. Putting away everything that pulls us from God. “And the word of the Lord,” Luke assures us, “grew mightily and prevailed.”

This discipline of subtraction was graphically illustrated for me a few weeks ago in my office here at the church. My computer had been acting up for quite some time. Pop-ups appeared on the screen with greater frequency, even though we had software to block them, and the computer got slower and slower and slower. Then, I lost virtually all my ability to control this sometimes valuable machine. I have our church website set up as my homepage—whenever I access the internet, our website is supposed to appear automatically on the screen. But it no longer did. Other sites appeared instead—sites advertising everything from new offers to refinance my home to glorious vacations in sun-baked Aruba—and try as I might, I could not reset our website as my homepage.

In near total frustration, I spoke with Jen, our office manager, and she ran what is called spyware detection software on my computer. Spyware, I’m told, is basically junk that sometimes enters your computer when you access other sites. If I, for example, visit other worthwhile sites, such as www.philadelphiaeagles.com or www.amazon.com, these nasty little files snuggle up like parasites to the other files and embed themselves deep within my computer. As they take up more and more space, they wreak more and more havoc, and the computer goes crazy. To make matters worse, spyware is difficult to detect and virtually impossible to remove without special spyware removal software.

Once Jen ran the detection software and diagnosed the problem, she declared war on the spyware in my computer and downloaded this spyware removal software. Our optimism grew as the software began deleting one unwanted file after another. Unfortunately, some of the files were obstinate, refusing to leave. As a result, the spyware removal program froze right before our eyes—it simply stopped working. In desperation, and just prior to clearing off the entire hard-drive, Jen yelled, “Neil Weaver.” And Neil, who knows far more about computers than most people, suggested one final strategy. It worked. Neil and Jen sent that spyware into exile, and my computer has been working wonderfully ever since.

As I sat and watched the anti-spyware software isolate the corruptive and unwanted files in my computer, and as I further waited as the spyware removal software attempted to clean up my computer, I couldn’t help but realize just how similar you and I are to that computer. We really are. We’ve been masterfully made by God and called to serve and worship him with everything we have. We are bursting with potential and, although multitudes of people simply follow the world’s impulses throughout their lives, we who follow Jesus are called to dance! What happens, however, is this. All along the way, spiritual spyware tries to push itself into our lives and embed itself deep within us. Such spyware might enter through situations and experiences far beyond our control—offensive words that people say to us, hurtful deeds that others do to us. The resulting feelings of pain, anger, and rejection mar us and continue to disorient us as long as they remain. Other spiritual spyware attaches itself to us through decisions that we ourselves make. The sins that we commit and the unhealthy practices that we involve ourselves in—files that we either knowingly or unknowingly store on our spiritual hard-drives through what we do, what we watch, what we listen to—often leave us infested with unwanted spyware. And like my computer, our lives slowly grind to a halt.

Think about it. As the spyware deep within us lingers and grows, we lose our focus. We pay far more attention to matters of little importance and far less on the things of God. We are distracted. Our energy wanes. The passion we once had seems to have vanished. We are at times left encumbered by disappointment and guilt. The fire just isn’t there anymore, and our experience with God pales in comparison to what he intends. We are like the infected computer that was sitting on my desk a few weeks ago.

So what do we do? Among other things we practice the discipline of subtraction, just like these former magicians did here in Acts 19. Strip off the old clothing and put on the new. Here are a few specific suggestions:
1. Run some spiritual spyware detection software through your soul. The Psalmist prayed in Psalm 139:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way (any spyware) in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.
Without administering those awful self-beatings that we often engage in, open yourself up to careful and prayerful introspection.
2. Remove the unhealthy chains that you are capable of removing. If there is unwanted spyware that you can delete—things that you can throw away, habits that you can begin to change—do it. Put off the old, and begin to put on the new.
3. Ask others for help. Some spyware is frighteningly difficult to delete. Other people who care can be of immeasurable assistance, just like Jen and Neil were to me when my computer acted up. They can listen, offer guidance, and provide accountability
4. Open yourself up to the Spirit of God. God longs to clean out even the most deeply-rooted spyware. Trust him. Let him do his work within you.

The love of Christ compels us and the Holy Spirit empowers us to set aside unhealthy chains. To put away the old and to put on the new. Let us all join with the writer of Hebrews, who wrote:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of
witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings
so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before
us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,…