Reader’s Digest used to have a treasury of short stories about people in every issue, especially those people that make a serious impact on the lives of others. Over the years there have been a lot of those “special” people in my life, more lives than I could ever list or name. Two of my favorite people are Mahlon Graham and Harold Wilbanks. They both attended the Cedar Grove church in Rogersville, AL, when I preached there. Harold passed away a few years ago, and Mahlon still lives in that community.
The people that make up that church all deserve extra stars in their crown — for putting up with all the nonsense, mistakes, problems, and dumb actions of a young (single) preacher, that still had some growing up to do. Probably as much as anybody else, Harold and Mahlon liked me; and understood some of the conflict that was going on in my life. They would listen to me, encourage me, and chastise me when I needed it.
Mahlon had a service station on Highway 72, east of town, down by the river, down by the river. Sometimes the three of us would be there, and almost without exception, the conversation would turn to football. Harold was an Alabama fan, Mahlon is an Auburn fan — and they were both serious about their team. On top of that, they were both loud; and could get louder if they thought the situation deserved it. Sometimes, I am sure that you could hear these “discussions” a mile away. In those discussions I generally favored Auburn, but being an Arkansas, I really didn’t care much for either team. So, I delighted in getting the arguments started, and providing a spark to keep them going.
Mahlon and Harold both encouraged me in my preaching, and there were times that I really needed it. It was strange to me, that both of these men liked what they called my “hard” sermons. You may recall those kinds of sermons from the past, when the preacher romps, stomps, and yells about “sin”. Most of the time it seemed as if the intent of the sermon was to get the people to feel as if they were not good enough, or doing enough, to say they were saved. Mahlon told me once, that he figured if he could “hunker” down and take a sermon like that, he was probably going to be alright.
Well, maybe I have learned a little, and grown a lot since then — but my approach to challenging sin is a little different 40 years later. I have come to the conclusion, that sin is a “heart” problem, and not an action problem. The bad actions are the result of what is going on in the heart.
Listen to what the psalmist has to say:
In his pride the wicked does not seek him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God. (Psalm 10:4, NIV)
That verse, as well as any, my definition of sin: Sin is doing what I want, instead of what God wants. In one of the most wicked periods in the history of the Israelite people, one of the thoughts that is constantly repeated is:
After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. … (Judges 2:10-12, NIV)
The Israelites were sinners because they had a heart problem, that manifested itself as actions in their lives.
The actions of people are bad, because our actions are a manifestation of what is in our heart. In one of his first recorded sermons, the apostle Paul made this statement about the Israelite King, David: After removing Saul, he made David their king, God testified concerning Him: “I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do”. (Acts 13:22, NIV). David made some terrible mistakes, but he always stayed “after” the heart of God, and God loved that attribute in him. When we keep “seeking” God, even if we make mistakes along the way; God, in His “steadfast love”, forgives us and stays out in front of us. We have to continually search out heart, and see if we are “seeking” Him, or seeking after our own wants and pleasures. Those that are “seeking” have room in their heart for God.
Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you. (Psalm 9:10, NIV)
(This was first posted on Facebook on May 27, 2016. It has been revised and edited for use as one of our “Psalms for Saturday”. It is my prayer that it will be a blessing for you today. Bill)