Thursday, February 11, 2010

Fruits of the Holy Spirit(4): Continence (3)

Continuing, now, our study of the fruit of the Holy Spirit called Continence. Remember that the Bible is a record of living people and living events, as they interact with each other and the living God, not a book of magic formula. As such the books of the Bible having been written in various languages, rely on common sense in the "how to apply" department of the study of God's word. So we can turn to the Bible and better understand the fruit of Continence if we remember two things. One is that the realization that the Holy Spirit yields a fruit called Continence is the result of many centuries of study of God's word, not because on page xyz of the Bible is there a "recipe" and "instructions" about how to receive or develop "Continence." In fact, the relatively modern word "continence" might not even occur in the scriptures, but that does not mean it is "put in there" or "made up" or "ex-scripture" or, heaven forbid, that dreaded Roman Catholic habit of "tradition" ;-) Rather, generations of Christians, just as the Jews before them, having studied God's word are able to glean from its richness many guidances and conclusions, all based on God's truth.

Here's a quick analogy to tell you what I mean better. Suppose you have just read an instruction booklet about a new set of children's toy building blocks you have purchased. You have read about the materials they are made from, what the designs or lettering mean, and how they can be assembled, either placed alongside or on top of each other, or even latched together. There may even be a sample of a building that you can make using the building blocks, such as a house. The Bible is like that, whereby you understand the "what" and the "how" of God's truth. In Bible figures and events you even see an example of what is built, what is wrought, within the context of God's truth. So you are, to use the analogy, reading in the Bible the building blocks God has provided, and a sample of how these blocks were used, such as a house.

Once one really understands the building blocks and example, you realize other buildings you can build. You or your child might now build a toy school using those building blocks, even though the instruction book does not mention anywhere in the text "how to build a toy school." You can build a lighthouse, or a store, or a toy fortress, or a castle, even though the instruction book does not use the words "school, lighthouse, store, fortress" or "castle." You are not going "outside the Bible" if using God's word and your own well discerning brain if you realize that you apply the word of God (the instructions) and what the Prophets, such as Moses, did (the toy house example) to now recognize that other good things can be constructed (the school, the lighthouse, etc) using those principles and example. Thus it would be silly to expect that the instruction book included word by word every example of every possible thing you can do and construct with the toy blocks! Likewise people should not expect to flip open the Bible and "believe" in "fruits" of the Holy Spirit and one of them being "Continence" only if those exact words are used, for obviously they are not. God's word is revealed over thousands of years of scripture and then pieced together, prayerfully and honestly studied, and then gleaned.

Therefore to understand Continence in the scripture you have to look for examples of Continence, as it appears under all its similar verbiage and meanings. Continence is thus examples of self restraint, moderation, self denial and, here we have it..... not coveting. Ah ha, you see, there is a certainly familiar bona fide scriptural word, coveting. Continence means the ability to restrain, be moderate, and put boundaries around what one may desire to do or to have. So the fruit of the Holy Spirit of Continence has, of course, the most firm foundation when one studies what God instructs, and what is shown as examples, of coveting. Naturally we have seen the first terrible example of lack of Continence (Adam and Eve) and the perfected example of the purest Continence, Jesus Christ during the temptation, and so we can realize the actual meaning of two of the Ten Commandments in what is basically their prohibition of a lack of Continence.

Exodus 20:17
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.

God is giving you the building blocks (telling you not to covet) and then providing instruction manual "examples" that are pertinent to the times, but apply to ALL things that are capable of being coveted. People did not have cars or tractors or trucks, in those times, obviously, so God explains that not only should the house or spouse or servants not be coveted, but also the means of travel, plowing the field, food and livelihood of the household, such as oxen and asses. Just because God does not "list sheep," for example, does not mean it is "OK" to covet them, to say nothing of not being "OK" to covet something that had not yet been invented, such as trucks, tractors and cars! That is why God says "nor any thing that is thy neighbour's." We no longer, hopefully, have slaves those in servitude in modern times, but we have employees, students and followers, and obviously we should not covet them in modern times any more than in those times the examples of man or maid-servant are given by God.

This is also the reason that having what we call "spiritual envy" is also a sin that breaks one of the Ten Commandments. When someone envies how spiritually blessed (either in reality or because the person is perceived as being blessed but is not) someone else is, one is coveting, because when God says "nor any thing" he means "nor ANY thing." Any jealousy and any envy is prohibited by these Commandments, whether it is a person, a possession or a personal quality.

In theory, God could have made this a "Do" instead of a "Don't" Commandment. He could have said, in theory, "Thou shalt have Continence at all times." But in God's constant perfection He understands how things must be expressed to people, to all humans, who are constantly thick-headed and stubborn in their sin. God has to first simply and plainly define what people are NOT to do, when it comes to sin. The person who strives to perfect their "not" doing that sin, in this case coveting, becomes a person with a "do" with a gift of grace, which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit of Continence. Adam and Eve envied (and thus coveted) God's knowledge and they ate the apple. Jesus Christ did not, of course, covet, envy, seek, want or need any of the earthly powers that Satan demonstrated to him during the temptation, and thus Jesus is the model of perfect Continence. When one does not covet one has the fruit of Continence.

The Commandments would be reiterated by God, and thus spoken to the people by Moses, and so this Commandment is repeated in Deuteronomy 5:21.

Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour's wife, neither shalt thou covet thy neighbour's house, his field, or his man-servant, or his maid-servant, his ox or his ass, or any thing that is thy neighbour's.

Notice the different order from Exodus 20:17 and also the inclusion of "his field." Again, this is the living and breathing word of God, not rigid magic formula. It does not mean that the Bible is "inconsistent" or that it was "OK" to covet someone's field during Exodus but it became a "new don't" during Deuteronomy! God says do not covet ANY THING, and in the course of his very real dialogue and conversation with his followers that takes place over time and in their own language, God says with perfection the words that the people need to best comprehend and serve him in God's perfectly consistent message.

So now that you have seen the Biblical basis for the "Don't" in the Commandments (the instructions) now let us look at how God hates covetness (the examples provided with the instructions)!

Psalm 10:3
For the wicked boasteth of his heart's desire, and blesseth the covetous, whom the Lord abhorreth.

So David, who composed this Psalm, observes that wicked people boast about their wants and cravings and that they, going further, bless people who share their desires and actions of coveting. David then states that God abhors (hates) those who are covetous.

Genesis 14:22-23
And Abram said to the king of Sodom, I have lifted up my hand unto the Lord, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth, That I will not take from a thread even to a shoe-latchet, and that I will not take any thing that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich.

Abraham is held up, thus, as an early example of one who would not accept nor desire even the smallest item as gift from anyone, and thus is free of covetousness. Therefore Abraham is one of the highest examples in the Bible of one who has Continence.

Jeremiah 8:8-11
How do ye say, We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us? Lo, certainly in vain made he it; the pen of the scribes is vain.
The wise men are ashamed, they are dismayed and taken: lo, they have rejected the word of the Lord; and what wisdom is in them?
Therefore will I give their wives unto others, and their fields to them that shall inherit them: for every one from the least even unto the greatest is given to covetousness, from the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely.
For they have healed the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying Peace, peace, when there is no peace.

The prophet Jeremiah is conveying the word of God condemning that entire generation for their falling away from Him in faithlessness and rejecting His word. God through Jeremiah observes that at the root of their faithlessness is coveting, which is demonstrated by everyone from the least in rank to the greatest, including even priests and prophets. Notice especially that God teaches that there is no genuine peace when the waters are constantly roiled in society by covetousness. That is what he means by the hurt of the daughter of God's people (an expression indicating a parental affection felt by God) is barely healed at all because the hypocrites all around her say "peace, peace" yet there is no peace when everyone is coveting everything that belongs to everyone else. If it was bad then imagine what God thinks of these times when it comes to coveting, and the lack of peace for the daughter of His people.

Mark 7:20-23
And he [Jesus] said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man, For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts...[he lists many of them]...covetousness...All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.

The entire passage of Luke 12:13-28 consists of Jesus speaking a warning against covetousness.

Luke 12:15
And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of things which he possesseth.

Ephesians 5:5
For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

1 Timothy 6:6-11
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.
And having food and rainment, let us be there-with content.
But they that will be rich, fall into temptation, and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.
For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.

Acts 5:1-6
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And kept back part of the price (his wife also being privy to it,) and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles' feet.
But Peter said, Ananias, Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?
While it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.
And Ananias, hearing these words, fell down, and gave up ghost. And great fear came on all them that heart these things.
And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.

The couple Ananias and Sapphira pretended to donate to the Apostles all the proceeds from the sale of a piece of their land, but because they coveted money they held back a portion of the money from Peter, thinking he would not know. When Peter pointed out that not only did he know but more important, God knew, since Ananias and Sapphira were cheating and lying to the Holy Spirit, Ananias dropped dead. Young men witnessed this death, wrapped him in funeral cloth and buried him. In the next verses the same thing happens as his wife, not knowing what had happened, tried the same deception and she too died: And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her forth, buried her by her husband (Acts 5:10).

This is a specific example of how proclaimed baptized Christians who covet money (or anything else) risk being struck dead by God. This was witnessed by many people so that God could demonstrate the danger and evil of coveting, but also that God does indeed Know All, and is the All Knowing. God sees ALL the covetousness in ALL the people's hearts.

So the Bible is, of course, filled with cautions against coveting, including this specific real life example of consequences in Acts. It is part of the reality that in life people have repeatedly needed to be warned against covetousness (and thus to cultivate its opposite which is Continence).

In the next blog post we will look at Bible examples of the positive traits of Continence, such as self restraint.