Repentance and the Conscience (6)
Surely, in vain the net is spread
In the sight of any bird… Proverbs 1.17
I want to make one more comment about the Celtic Christian practice of penance.
During the period of the Celtic revival (ca. 400-800 AD), this spiritual discipline was used not only as a curative for contrary behavior, but also as a way of preparing oneself against sin. We read about this idea in a penitential written by Columbanus, an early 7th-century missionary/monk, and the greatest of the Irish missionaries to Europe. Here’s how Columbanus put it: “True penance is to refrain from committing deeds for which penance is to be done but when such are committed, to bewail them.”
In other words, if we know in advance what constitutes wrong conduct, we can envision what it will look like when it confronts us along our way in life. So we should make ready in our heart, mind, and conscience to recognize and avoid such conduct, which, if we actually committed it, would require repentance.
This is what Solomon had in mind in his proverb: If the bird recognizes the net or the snare, and understands the consequences of straying into it, you can be sure he’s going to stay away.
I suppose we might think of this as a kind of “preventive penance,” a way of disciplining ourselves before we fall into sin so that, when temptation rears its head, we’ll be able to recognize and endure through it.
It’s a way of setting a guard for our conscience so that it might operate for a strong soul.
Know what you’re looking for
Crucial to this being a successful component in our walk with the Lord is the ability to recognize temptation and to see through temptation to the consequences of obedience or disobedience. We recall that theologian Helmut Thielicke described temptation as finding ourselves in the place of thinking about breaking away from God. Temptation itself does not constitute disloyalty, but it invites it. Is this the way we think about temptation? If it is, we can be sure we will regard every temptation with wary eyes.
As we’ve seen, every day will have its temptations, and we need to be ready, focused on seeking the Kingdom and glory of God, to deal with those temptations when they arise (Matt. 6.33, 34). By anticipating the dangers ahead in our daily journey with the Lord, knowing what we might have to contend with in each situation, we can set our mind, heart, and conscience to resist mode, and be ready for whatever the enemy of our soul might launch at us.
Surely this is a form of “numbering our days for a heart of wisdom” concerning which Moses prayed in Psalm 90.12. Look ahead. Anticipate. Prepare. That way, when temptations arise we won’t be fooled by them, but will flee their nets and snares and continue in our walk with the Lord.
But how do we recognize temptation? Paul says we will be tempted in many ways, but though we are tempted, we need not fall into sin. As we have seen, the “way of escape” through temptation is there for us to find (1 Cor. 10.13; Ps. 73). We simply need to know where to look.
Temptation can take many forms, but underlying them all is the tempter’s subtle question to Eve, “Did God really say…?” Temptation is anything that challenges the Word, wisdom, character, or authority of God. The better we know that Word and the more consistently we yield to it, walking in God’s wisdom, the easier it will be for us to recognize the temptations that come our way. Once we identify something as a temptation we need to think through to its consequences. Asaph explained that sin is a slippery slope and can lead to real disaster (Ps. 73.18, 19). On the other side of temptation lies the path of rebellion, shame, and even death.
By studying the way of righteousness, and praying and thinking about the day ahead, we can anticipate people, situations, and circumstances that might conceal a snare of sin. Then, in our mind, we can walk through the steps that will enable us to resist the temptation, avoid the trap, and grow through the temptation into greater Christlikeness.
We resist temptation by seeking a way of escape through prayer and the Word of God. We will be more likely to succeed at this if we prepare well, beginning each day, and moving into each new situation, with some sense of where the net might be spread that can snare and entrap us. Then, when the temptation arises, we’ll be prepared in our soul – mind, heart, and conscience – to resist it and to find the way of escape. If we will do this, we’ll find our relationship with God strengthened and our walk with Him filled with renewed peace and joy (cf. Ps. 73.23-28; Jms. 1.2-4).
Make up your mind, each day, that you’re going to resist temptation with prayer, preparation, and resting in the Word of God. Let the Spirit Who brings conviction and repentance be at work within you before you come upon the nets and snares of temptation, and you’ll be in a much better position to overcome the evil that threatens to engulf you, with the good choices and conduct that please the Lord and honor Him.
1. What are some of the most common temptations you face each day. How might you prepare for these in prayer?
2. When temptation arises, what steps should you take? Is it a good idea to rehearse these steps each day, in your time of prayer and meditation? Why?
3. How would you explain the idea of preventive penance to a new believer?
Next steps – Transformation: Identify one way to begin practicing preventive penance in your own walk with the Lord.
T. M. Moore
All the installments in this “Strong Souls” series are available in PDF by clicking here.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.