By Jean Ford
“How can something so small cause so much discomfort?” my husband seethed in frustration. “It’s debilitating!” I couldn’t see a thing as I searched the foot cradled in my lap, but when I gently probed the bottom of his toe, my husband cried out again. The offending splinter was unseen, but not unfelt. Slowly, steadily, a tiny, sharp sliver
emerged, but only after direct and uncomfortable pressure was applied to the affected area.
How unnoticed that splinter had slipped in! Mike wasn’t aware of it until he tried to walk. Neither of us could see it, but it was there, hindering every step.
In the same way, subtle sin can embed itself in us, and the effects are just as debilitating, if not more. Indifference, half-truths, anxiety, idolatry, self-sufficiency–they all slip into our lives unnoticed. They remain unseen or unacknowledged until we attempt to walk with God in prayer.
We all know the impact of sin on the body and on spiritual growth; but what about its impact on prayer? In Hab. 1:13, we are
taught that God is simply too pure to look on evil. Is. 59:1-2 further clarifies the point: “Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that he will not hear.”
Sin in my life–even the “small” stuff–is offensive to God and hinders communication with Him. Is this hindrance God’s doing? Does the passage say that God hides His face from us because of our sin, or does it say that our sins have hidden His face from us? It’s an important distinction. God doesn’t change. He’s still omniscient; He knows our
hearts before we speak. He’s still loving; He loves us as a father. He’s still just; He views our sin–even subtle sin–through Christ’s righteousness. He’s still faithful; He will not abandon us. As Heb. 13:5 repeats God’s promise to Joshua–“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Josh. we are reminded that God doesn’t change in
relationship to me. I strain the relationship by allowing my sin to stack up like last night’s dirty dishes.
Think of a window. It’s winter and quite cold outside. As the evening gets colder, what happens to the inside of the window? Frost attaches itself, one crystal at a time. The view through the window becomes increasingly clouded so that eventually only vague shadows can be seen. What happens to the outside of the window? It remains clear–
no frost. Such is the case in our prayer relationship with God. Subtle sins on our side of the window attach themselves, crystal by crystal. But God’s side remains clear. The crystals seem innocuous enough at first, but left unchecked they accumulate, sometimes blocking the view completely. When I go to God in prayer with unresolved sin, it’s no surprise that I can’t see His face, can’t discern what He’s doing. I’ve brought with me everything I need to cloud the lines of communication.
Recently I settled down into what I thought was going to be a comfortable time of prayer and instruction as I sought the Lord’s guidance. I was going to be teaching on God’s holiness and I was seeking His lesson plan. All I encountered, however, was distance. God felt far away. No Scriptures were brought to mind. No ideas were planted. Thoughts that did come were jumbled and unclear. I asked the Lord to search my heart and bring to light any issue barring communication with Him. Sure enough, He convicted me on the spot of my envy of a brother’s maturity, and of ingratitude for growth already bestowed on me. He also reminded me of my prideful behavior at a recent leader’s meeting, and my unwillingness to entertain an opposing point of view. Once He brought these failings to mind through His Spirit, I confessed them with all sincerity and repentance. Conversation was restored; I could again distinguish His voice.
This process took only a matter of minutes, but there have been times in my life when it took months to work through. Clinical depression was part of my life. When in its throes, despair was a huge issue. Yes, there were biochemical causes underlying the despair, but I had also made deliberate choices that compounded it–choices regarding what I believed about God, as well as indifference to His instruction.
Is unbelief or indifference sin? Absolutely. Did God feel distant? Yes, for all those months. I used to dread the words, “Let us pray.” The distance was just too painful. Was there a quick fix? No. But through the perseverance of the Spirit, and a gradual yielding in my heart, the sins of doubt and unbelief were revealed to me. Intimacy was eventually restored.
Must we be perfect? Does this mean we have intimacy with God only if we are perfectly without sin? No. We have a sin nature, and we are hopelessly unaware of the sin abounding in our beings (hence the need for Christ’s righteousness). But when we ignore the convicting work of the Spirit, we offend God. When we choose to ignore or minimize the Spirit’s illumination of sin, that hides God’s face from us.
God promises that if we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive and purifies us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn. 1:9). But I don’t always acknowledge my offenses as sin. Worse yet, I Impose a hierarchy on them. Murder and manslaughter get my attention, but silently calling my brother “fool!” slips by unnoticed. Grand larceny raises a red flag, but privately coveting my friend’s spacious home is reduced to whimsical fancy. I defuse guilt by saying that God
understands my frustration–but my rationalization is self-centered, not God-centered. There is no hierarchy in God’s eyes. If any recognized sin, blatant or subtle, remains unacknowledged, it offends God and hinders the Spirit’s sanctifying work, even in prayer.
Ephesians 4:30 tells us not to grieve the Holy Spirit, implying that He can be grieved. First Corinthians 2:10-14 reminds us that the things of God are spiritually discerned. If I grieve the Spirit by minimizing my sin, then my understanding of the things of God–His simple communication with me regarding His will, instruction, comfort,
and so on–is compromised, just as communication between a father and child becomes strained if one offends the other. Responding to the convicting work of the Spirit is a condition of intimacy, both positionally and relationally, with the Father.
Like the splinter, subtle sin easily embeds and causes us to limp along in our relationship with God. Our brothers in Christ don’t see it; we don’t see it. It’s only after we’ve experienced the discomfort of the Spirit applying direct pressure to that area of our lives that we’re able to see it and can come to a point of repentance. As we respond in humble submission, slowly and steadily the tiny, sharp sliver emerges. Once removed, I can walk unhindered again with my Father, enjoying clear communication with Him.
It is critical, then, to identify and deal with subtle sin. How do we do that? Here are the steps I take:
1. Take a subtle sin inventory (see sidebar). Do so with utmost honesty, meditating on 1 Jn. 1:8.
2. Allow the Holy Spirit to bring to mind any failing.
3. Acknowledge it as sin.
4. Agree that it is offensive to God.
S. Deliberately hang onto the promise and hope found in 1 Jn. 1:9, and rejoice in the reconciliation God has already secured for you through Christ.
6. Give thanks for restoration of intimacy in your relationship. Then bring your praises and petitions to God in prayer.
7. Always keep a short account. Confront sin day to day and moment to moment. Humbly confess any sin as soon as you encounter it.
By embracing the uncomfortable–and sometimes painful–work of extricating subtle sin, we can walk in uncompromised fellowship with God. Intimacy is regained and the lines of clear communication are restored. We never again have to limp along in our prayer lives. We never have to dread the words, “Let us pray.”
SWEATING THE SMALL STUFF
Murder. Theft. Fraud. Perjury. The list sounds like it’s from a John Subtle Sins of Doubt Grisham novel. It grabs your attention, doesn’t it? And if you or I were accused of any of these offenses, we’d take notice. More importantly, if we actually committed one of these, we’d recognize our guilt. Why? Because everyone knows it’s wrong to kill. Everyone knows it’s wrong to steal. Everyone–even a 5-year-old-knows that it is wrong to lie. The world deals with actions, where we can see offenses clearly. God, however, deals with the heart that’s behind the action, in that light I’m guilty of every charge, even though my friends can’t see it. If the truth be known, I’ve committed each one of these offenses. My guess is that you have too.
Because our world responds to criminal acts, we tend to create a hierarchy of sin. Crimes that ore particularly offensive by society’s standards result in greater punishment. But Gad’ looking at the heart behind the offense, shatters the hierarchical system In God’s eyes when I indulge in murderous anger I am just as guilty as Cain. When I
entertain lustful thoughts of someone other than my spouse, I am as guilty as David or Bathsheba. All sin is offensive to God–even the “small stuff”–and hinders communication with Him.
Below is an inventory of “subtle” sins. Prayerfully’ with all honesty, review each item. (You might wont to try one section per day.) Allow the Holy Spirit to bring even the smallest sin to mind. Acknowledge that it exists and that it is indeed offensive to God. Bring it before God with a yielded heart and thank Him for the reconciliation you already have in Christ. When you look in the mirror, your eyes may see guilt, but your faith will see the cross, and intimacy will be restored.
Subtle Sins of Pride
A. Boosting about your pastor or church (1 Cor. 3:5-7)
B. Pride in spiritual growth (1 Cor. 2:6-13)
C. Feeling self-important (Ro. 12:10, Phil. 2:3)
D. Choosing words in prayer to impress those ground us (Mt. 6:5-8)
E. Critical nature/impatience with others (1 Thess. 5:11,14)
F. Self-righteous judgment of others (Mt. 7:1-5)
G. Closed mindedness/unwillingness to listen (Jas. 1:19)
Subtle Sins of Doubt
A. Unbelief, lock of faith in prayer (Jas. 1:5-8)
B. Anxiety over livelihood or standard of living (Lk. 12:22-31)
C. Impatience with circumstances (Jas. 5:7-11)
D. Guilt/fear (Heb. 10:19-23, 1 Jn. 4:16-18)
Subtle Sins of Idolatry and Self-Sufficiency
A. Putting family (spouse, kids, parents) before God/Christ (Mt. 10:37, Mk. 12:30)
B. Putting pastors/church before God Himself (Ex. 20:1-6)
C. Going about our day independent of God (Micah 6:8)
D. Depending on the counsel of men more than God (Ps. 118:7-9)
E. Trusting in our own wisdom/abilities (Prov. 3:5-6)
Subtle Sins of Indifference
A. Purposelessness/apathy in serving the Lord (Ro. 12:11)
B. Lock of passion/lukewormness (Mk. 12:30-31)
C. Ingratitude (sol. 3:15, 1 Thess. 5:18)
D. Forgetting God in the whirlwind of everyday life (Dt. 6:4-12)
E. Neglecting the Sabbath day (Ex. 20:8-11, Jer. 17:21-22)
F. Indifference to prayer (Eph. 6:18, 1 Thess. 5:17)
G. Indifference to obedience (Mt. 7:24-27, Jn. 14:15, Jas. 1:22-25)
H. Indifference to on unsaved world (Mt. 28:19-20)
I. Indifference to sharing faith with our kids/households (Dt. 6:4-9)
Subtle Sins of Unforgiveness
A. Harbored anger/animosity (Mt. 5:21-24)
B. Unforgiveness (Mt. 18:21-35, Mk. 11:25, Col. 3:13)
C. Bitterness/resentment (Eph. 4:31-32)
Subtle Sins of Envy and Materialism
A. Worldly desires (Jas. 4:3-5, 1 Jn. 2:15)
B. Envy/desire of others’ material blessings (1 Jn. 2:16-17)
C. Envy of another’s maturity, gifting, or accomplishments
(1 Cor. 3:3, 12:12-26)
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY PRAY MAGAZINE, ISSUE TWENTY-NINE, 2002, PAGES 32-33. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.