But we are all like an unclean thing,
And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags;
We all fade as a leaf.
And our iniquities, like the wind,
Have taken us away.
- Isaiah 64.6
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.
- Romans 7.18
While you seek what is denied, repeat what is condemned, and gild what is foul, why do you not take notice of yourself, wretched mankind, inwardly rotten, full of bile, rheum, fluid, blood, and phlegm, but outwardly a skin washed yet never clean? For you are always stained and defiled from the inner filth of your uncleanness; though you be washed daily, you are polluted daily.
- Columbanus, Sermon VII, Irish, 7th century
Isaiah, Paul, and Columbanus testify to a reality that it’s all too easy to lose sight of: We cannot trust ourselves. Not our old selves, at any rate.
We’ve all heard the old maxim, “To thine own self be true!” What was Shakespeare thinking? That’s about the worst advice you can give anyone! In our day, the “true self” of our secular age is coming increasingly to light in a blight of narcissistic self-interest which admits no bounds except whatever I want next.
But this self-serving, old-self presence lingers even in those who – like Isaiah, Paul, and Columbanus – know the Lord, and long to follow Him faithfully. The old self is like a zombie: it just won’t die, and each time you try to kill it, it just gets uglier and uglier.
A day of deliverance from our old self is coming, but for now, we must struggle not to rely on our own wits, strength, wiles, experience, or anything else that has its origins within our old-self souls. We must flee the old self, and submit to the Lord in all our thoughts, affections, priorities, and ways.
Our true selves cannot be trusted, as Columbanus (543-615 AD) understood. As a youth – athletic, handsome, witty – he was the darling of every Irish lass in his village, and he did not trust his inner inclinations.
Fearful of the deadly power of inward sin, Columbanus fled to the monastery of the saintly Sinell, where he found refuge from the temptations of the flesh, submitted to Christ and His faithful shepherd, and grew strong in his new-self soul.
As Columbanus learned to master his old self, and made increasing room for his new self in Jesus Christ, the Lord opened doors of opportunity for him to serve in the Kingdom of God. From Sinell’s school, Columbanus moved to Bangor, and worked as a scholar with the great Comghall. Later, he sailed with several companions to become a missionary to Gaul. There, and in Switzerland and Italy, he founded four training centers where thousands came to know Christ and became fitted to serve Him.
The redemption of Jesus Christ delivers us from the penalty of our sin, and, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, brings the power to overcome the old self and the law of sin. But it’s a struggle, every day. Every day we will stumble and be tempted to be true to our old-self ways, and every day we will need the cleansing and renewal that come from confession and repentance.
The goal of the Christian life is to be true to Christ, our new self, and to deny and “mortify” (Paul’s word) our true self in all its wretchedness. These days the consensus is that people are basically good, lacking only education, resources, and opportunity to blossom and flourish. This is testimony to the power of the father of lies to delude whole generations. We’d do better listening to Isaiah, Paul, and Columbanus.
The record of history is strewn with the litter of ruined lives – ruined by their own sinful choices or those of others. Part of the Christian’s mission, as Columbanus knew, is to help people face up to what, deep within, they know is true about themselves, that they need Someone to deliver them from their wretchedness, through cleansing and renewal, into a life of wholesomeness, truth, and love.
Only Christ can accomplish this. Be true to Him.
Psalm 115.1-3, 9-11 (Plainfield: Nothing but the Blood of Jesus)
Not to us, O God, not us, but unto Your Name be glory!
For Your love and faithfulness, ever to Your Name be glory!
Why should the nations cry, “Where is their God on high?”
You rule us, Lord on high – ever to Your Name be glory!
All who trust in Jesus yield – ever to His Name be glory!
Find in Him their help and shield – ever to His Name be glory!
O Israel, trust the Lord! Fear Him, obey His Word!
He helps us ever more! Ever to Your Name be glory!
Lord, I would be true to You – You only!
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T. M. Moore
All psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter. Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Walker, p. 91.