This post is taken from a recent sermon on our “Spiritual Sicknesses Series.”
Living spiritually can be really tough! Peter’s warning is sobering: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)
Paul gives us a little more encouragement, but it’s still a warning: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to main. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
God has designed our physical bodies in an amazing way. He has given us immune systems to help us identify and respond to the threats that surround us constantly. Our immune systems literally keep us alive, but they can mess up in a couple of serious ways.
The immune system can get messed up by over-reaction. We call that allergies. A little piece of Tennessee pollen floats into my nose, and my immune system is pretty sure it’s actually anthrax riding on an ebola cloud, so it goes DEFCON 1 and starts trying to sneeze it out however it can.
It also messes up by under-reaction. That’s the main result of AIDS. The immune system pretty well dies and lets everything in, no questions asked.
God gives Christians a “spiritual immune system.” Here are a few components:
Fellowship. The community of God’s people is a great self-defense system. It helps me think about what is right and what is wrong.
In the congregational community, you’ll find someone who can recognize the same things that have hurt you. We have recovering addicts. We have people who have suffered losses—and survived. We have people who have people who have been through divorce and people who have managed to put the pieces back together. We have doubeters!
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 is just great: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
Another defense system is prayer.
Someone once said that prayer is a good test for behavior. If I can’t pray for it, I shouldn’t do it.
Prayer also strengthens us. Right before his arrest, Jesus told his disciples, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation! The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)
Discernment is another defense system 1 John 4:1 and Hebrews 5:14 talk about this skill. We learn to tell what is good for us and what is bad for us.
Discernment is the spiritual version of “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!” It is the ability to tell what is right and wrong.
Conscience is one last piece of the spiritual immune system. It’s the “check engine” light on the dashboard of our souls.
It can be very helpful, but just like our body’s self-defense system, it can go wrong.
There’s a preacher-story about conscience. A man wrote the IRS a letter and enclosed a check. “I can’t sleep,” he said, “so I’ve written you a check for $50 for what I owe you in taxes. If I still can’t sleep, I’ll send you the rest.”
The Middle Road
It is vitally important that our immune systems be well-tuned. Over-reactions can destroy us. Allergies cause us to respond to pollen like it was ebola. AIDS causes every invader in the world to be successful. These tools keep our immune systems in balance.
An Overactive Conscience
When our spiritual immune system has allergies, it sees things that are okay and over-reacts. It is a conscience that is easily provoked. A person like this worries a lot, and likely judges others a lot.
The Bible describes this condition in a way you might not expect. It calls an over-active conscience a weak conscience. Check out 1 Corinthians 8:7-13. It talks about eating meat sacrificed to idols. People with knowledge understand that it doesn’t matter if the grill says Webber or Zeus—the hamburger is still just hamburger. But people who came out of idolatry might have an over-active conscience that won’t allow them to eat that meat. Paul says that he would never eat meat if it would offend that weak conscience brother.
An Underactive Conscience
The opposite condition is described in 1 Timothy 4:1-5. This conscience isn’t called weak; it’s called seared. It’s been char-broiled and it has a thick skin. It doesn’t notice anything, even if it is a severe threat. Paul says that people in this condition encountered it because of insincere liars, deceitful spirits, and the teachings of demons.
Spurgeon described the tragedy of this condition powerfully:
It is a very terrible thing to let conscience begin to grow hard, for it soon chills into northern iron and steel. It is like the freezing of a pond. The first film of ice is scarcely perceptible; keep the water stirring and you will prevent the frost from hardening it; but once let it film over and remain quiet, the glaze thickens over the surface, and it thickens still, and at last it is so firm that a wagon might be drawn over the solid ice. So with conscience, it films over gradually, until at last it becomes hard and unfeeling, and is not crushed even with ponderous loads of iniquity.
Paul gave Timothy and us some great instructions. He told him that “the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1:5)