Week 1 - How to ruin your life without even trying...
In this session we set the scene for the unfolding of the whole series. The session is not designed to be several hours worth of condemnation engineering and it’s not to induce guilt. It’s about sober reflection on the reality of daily life and the different paths through it that are available.
It is perhaps worth leaving plenty of time in this session for personal reflection. It might be also be worthwhile supplying paper and pens for each group member to make some notes on.
In Romans 1:18-32 Paul describes how human life can spiral into ruin. His words are well known and familiar to us but in this session we’re going to reflect on them afresh. Paul writes some 1900 years before what we call ‘modern psychology’ was invented, but his assessment of humankind is full of wisdom and insight. In these verses Paul lays out 6 steps to ruin which, if we’re honest, we’ve all encountered first hand.
1 – Turning away
The first step towards ruin is in refusing to let God be God. Or to put it another way it is in refusing to honour and reverence God. “Though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him”. This stands at the heart of man’s downfall. We see it in the allegory of the creation narrative, we notice it, we see it’s effects, and yet we still follow the path.
Reflect: In what ways and in what situations do I tend to turn away from God? Are there any patterns in this behaviour?
2 – The mind darkens
If God is God, then God is the creator of all. He is, as James Bryan-Smth says ‘the only being that exists without a first cause, a perfect and powerful being’. Therefore we ought to honour and give thanks to him. Therefore, in turning away we deny a reality over which we have no control and no right to change. In refusing to give God glory and honour we set ourselves against the truth of the universe.
Our minds, created by the God of truth, thrive on truth and reality. When reality is denied and when truth is opposed, our minds become darkened and dimmed. Paul says, having refused to honour God ‘they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools’.
Reflect: What aspects of our thought or behaviour are opposed to the reality and truth that stands at the heart of all creation – that God is worthy of honour and praise?
3 – Slipping into idolatary
People are designed to need a god. If we reject the God, then something else must be put into his place. We simply cannot live with the hole. Throughout the history of mankind we’ve been experts at creating our own god, but what we create is of course not God. Paul describes this next step on the path to oblivion as follows; they ‘ exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four footed animals or reptiles’. Not that an idol has to be something that is alive of course. An idol is anything in which we invest our whole lives in order to find a sense of purpose. Idols serve us by giving us what we want, and we serve idols by sacrificing our life energy to it.
Reflect: We may not sacrifice our life energy to a statue of a dog or the like, but are there any things in life, other than God, to which we do sacrifice our life energy?
4 – God departs
As we become more wrapped up in idolatry, and unless we discover the futility of it and turn back to God, we continue on a trajectory that rejects God. God is rejected and so God leaves us alone. Paul puts it like this ‘Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity’. God leaves us to it. If we refuse to turn back, he let’s us be and leaves us to continue on the road to destruction. This is, in the flow of biblical theology, one aspect of the outworking of Gods wrath.
Reflect: Are there any paths of idolatry that I’ve walked for a long time? Are there any patterns of thought and action that desperately need to be turned around and repented of?
5 – We pursue pleasure at all costs
Disconnected from reality, and from God, we then begin to strive after pleasure and fulfillment to fill the void. We try to find fulfillment through our bodies, through our minds, through our possessions, etc etc. But we find that pleasure found in these has an ever diminishing effect. Each time we find it, the pleasure decreases and so fulfils less. Paul says ‘For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions’.
Reflect: To what do I turn to find pleasure, satisfaction and purpose? To what do I look to fulfil the void? Degrading passions are not simply things that we identify as perverse in our culture. Anything that seeks what only God can provide in any other place is degrading in the sense that it devalues and degrades us as the pinnacle of Gods creation.
6 – Sin reigns
The final step, the natural conclusion, of the previous 5 steps. Sin becomes normative behaviour and automatic. When the previous 5 steps become established we begin to reflect everything that stands against God. Paul gives this some form as he lists these things: ‘And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to thinks that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.’
Reflect: We are redeemed in Christ, and yet so often we have a tendency to drift back towards the old ways. Is there anything in this list which we know, deep down, describes a part of us? Perhaps now is a good time to acknowledge this and bring it before God, asking for his forgiveness and for strength to turn back to him.
Note – this might be a good point to spend some time praying as a group. Bringing before God sin that needs to be repented of, and asking God for a fresh desire and strength to turn back to him in all aspects of life and faith.
After some time praying why not read the ‘Comfortable Words’ from the old Book of Common Prayer Communion service? Words of re-assurance and comfort for anyone who repents:
Matt11:28-29 – Come to me all you that are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that all that believe in him would not perish but have eternal life
1Timothy1:15 – Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptence: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners…
1 John 2:1-2 – If anyone sins, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only or ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
Conclusion: Sin is ugly, virtue is beautiful
Sin is ugly. It is the opposite of beauty. James Bryan-Smith writes:
“When I see a man leering at a woman, it makes me cringe. Anger can be ugly. When I see someone become enraged it is unsightly. Worry is unbecoming, and judging others is repulsive. When I hear someone saying terrible things about another, I feel ill. Pride, prejudice, deception, and degradation- all are ugly. When I see these in others it is clearly unattractive. But when I see them in myself, I am quick to rationalize and minimise them. Despite its ugliness ad destructiveness, sin still manages to lure us into its illusion of happiness. “
But virtue is beautiful. Bryan-Smith writes:
“In contrast, virtue – not the outward appearance but the inner reality of a heart that loves goodness – is beautiful. When I see someone tell the truth, though it hurts them, it is lovely. When man treats a woman not as an object but as a person, I see beauty. A person who does a good deed in secrecy is a marvel and a wonder.”
Likewise Thomas Merton came to see the beauty of virtue – why not read the following and reflect on it:
“Without virtue there can be no happiness, because virtues are precisely the powers by which we can come to acquire happiness: without them, there can be no joy, because they are the habits which co-ordinate and provide an outlet for our natural energies and direct them to the harmony and perfection and balance, the unity of our nature with itself and with God, which must, in the end, constitute everlasting peace.’
None of us want to ruin our lives, and yet sometimes we tread the path that leads exactly there. We all desire happiness. We all desire the good and beautiful life.
Based on the reflections from earlier in the session, why not take some time to write a letter to God. In the letter lay out some of your reflections from earlier and then move on to complete this sentence:
“Dear God, the life I want most for myself is…”
Try to describe what a ‘good and beautiful life’ would look like for you.
When you’ve written this letter commit it to God in prayer and revisit it throughout the series.