November 30, 2020

iMonk: Doing the Math


A classic Michael Spencer post from April, 2009.

I’m not very good at math, and I’m worse at being a Jesus follower, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

I starting doing some personal math this morning as I started my day, and I made a discovery.

I could no longer deny that a lot of things add up in my life; they add up to an area where sin has taken a deep root.

The last few months, I keep bumping into the same kind of feedback in my immediate environment from people who know me and observe me. When I first heard it, I was angry and defensive. I should know right away that defensive is a signal all is not well.

That feedback may not have been flawless, but I’m not convinced some of it is true.

A number of relationships changed, and I blamed the other persons. I’m not “unblaming” them entirely now, but I see something I didn’t see before.

I began to notice the interactions I had with other people, and I discerned some patterns. Not random patterns, but intentional patterns. There was something THERE that people were moving around; something that was playing a big role in those interactions. Something that was part of me.

I began to look at the places where my life was going well, and was surprised to find many areas where this kind of sin would be rewarded.

I looked at my ministry, and I saw that this sin serves me pragmatically and allows me to be an effective leader, especially in some aspects of my particular situation.

My personality isn’t always the clearest picture to me, but it became clearer. The established patterns of my life began to show me a kind of person and a pattern of behavior, all held together by the sin that was being revealed to me.

I thought back on my life history, and considered where this sin began to be part of my life and why; I traced its impact from the past to the present.

I began to understand the common thread that held together many separate strands in my life experience: I was protecting a pattern and preference for a sin that I believed defined my life.

Life in Jesus is a life of repentance, but I come from a tradition where sin is always behavior. Doing bad things. Sinning against the example of righteousness. The sins that arise from the components of our own personality- the acceptable, even valued ones- are much deeper to repent of. Some even applaud and reward certain patterns of sin.

How do you repent of what is making your life work?

How do you repent of what people expect you to do and be?

How do you repent of your self-image, your security and your identity?

How do you repent of sins that have grown essential to your being and life?

How do you repent of sins that the very repentance of them will cause you to lose support and encouragement?

When I do the math, when I put on the special glasses of Gospel realism, I see a disease and a man in denial. I see a sin addict in need of a group. I see a person whose engagement in sin and life in ministry are deeply entwined.

Christ forgives. Sin is defeated. We are part of the new creation. But my sin hasn’t left quietly. It’s convinced me that without it, I’m too vulnerable to do without it.

Christ showed me these things. Jesus showed me because he wants to be my security, my identity, my everything. He does not beat me down over this situation, but invites me into repentance in love, kindness and compassion. The wounds of Jesus are to change this situation and to change me. But I need community, because this is a fearful revelation. I wonder what life would be like on the other side of a pattern of living that has become identical with being Michael Spencer.

But that’s the journey with Jesus. That’s the narrow path, the treasure in the field, the dying all day long. It’s the only place to go because he has the words of eternal life.

But I need a community. Maybe you do too.


  1. I remember this post from the first time round. I couldn’t make head nor tail of what he was getting at. I’m guessing that he wasn’t particularly intending that I should, but without understanding that, my brain just can’t make the leap to the punch line.

  2. The reason Michael said he needs a community (the “punch line”) is found early in the piece:

    “I keep bumping into the same kind of feedback in my immediate environment from people who know me and observe me.”

    Without a community to give us such feedback, we cannot “do the math” about our own lives accurately.

    • Our communities are giving us feedback all the time, but do we have the courage & ability to hear it for what it is? Sometimes the feedback affirms/encourages our sin; sometimes it points out our sin. By God’s grace, we hear it for what it is & allow it to affect a change of heart.

  3. Timely in a personal way…but I still can’t get a grip on it. My “community” is absolutely no help.


    • Tom, I hear you about your community. For three decades I longed for a community that I could find help for my own formation. I am not sure why I couldn’t. Maybe the sin in my own life was the same sin in the others of the community and they didn’t know what to do to get help. So, the sin was swept aside, ignored, and not brought to light and confession. And all this in a community that considered itself on the “cutting edge” of what God was wanting to do in the earth. By His grace I have found my community and am getting help. And it is wonderful.

  4. In the days of the Early Church, there were many who looked at themselves and wished to be changed. Many of them followed John the Baptist and Jesus out into the desert and became the Desert Fathers and the beginning of the monastic movement. Some of us find our change “in” the world, in the community of the Church-in-the-world. Others of us find our change “outside” the world in the community of the Church-in-the-desert. Some of us can do with the rhythm of input from the parish community. Some of us need the hothouse environment of a consecrated community.

    Either way, I agree with Michael, we all need the Church-as-community.

  5. I see two factors at work here.

    1 By and large the Evangelical Christian community will default to ‘don’t judge’ so will allow us to continue on in sin indefinitely. Most of the time people may see it, but be afraid to speak up. And if they do speak up, how will we react?

    2 We have abandoned completely the idea of confessing our sins.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      The factor I see is lack of community, instead cultivating a Christianese pseudo-community where everyone plays their proper Christianese role like an actor (Hypokritos).

      Because it’s hard to have community when everything is performance-oriented. Or when there is no trust, only Spiritual One-Upmanship.

      Plus, the rabid individualism of a Gospel reduced to Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation. Where everything is the vertical plane of “Me & Jesus”, there’s no room for the horizontal plane of community and society. Or the physical instead of the spiritual (thus introducing Gnostic Dualiism and its accompanying baggage).

      • Good point, HUG. Personally, I don’t mind the “Me & Jesus,” because I know He died for me (and the many), but maybe the key is to turn the “Me & Jesus” into “Us & Jesus.”

  6. I love this. It addresses the “I can’t do this alone” aspect of life and following Christ. It addresses the “If I DO do it alone, I will most likely screw it up” aspect of life and following Christ.

    I also sense three huge, unspoken challenges:
    1) I need to be a part of a community toward which the “I-can’t-do-this-alone”-s can turn;
    2) I need to be a part of a community that encourages “do-it-yourself-ers” to seek counsel and assistance;
    3) I need to do my part to ensure that community is “healthy” for those who come into it and are a part of it.

  7. Of course, when this turns into “you have to repent of hidden, unknown to yourself” sins, every time you disagree or question something (or someone), it is a pandora’s box for potential spiritual abuse. Driscoll’s church uses this line of thinking in their groups that attempt to ‘heal’ parishioners by making them confess sins to the leadership so they can turn it against them later and tell them every thought and question is their own sin surfacing.

    I am fine with this if one feels God is revealing a “hidden” sin to them, but I don’t accept others telling a person what a “hidden” sin inside them is – for example, they could say, ” I noticed you get quite upset when we bring up this topic” and God could use this to reveal to a person a problem. But many churches and christians over stretch this observation, going on to play pop psychologist and diagnosing someone else’s reaction as “you get upset when this is brought up, because you are not a) giving it to God b) full of pride or selfishness or any other bad attribute they can come up with or c) you are out of line for having that opinion, and not properly submitting to authority etc.

    It becomes a tool to use against anyone questioning someone/thing, criticizing someone/thing or to create a reason for dismissal (from a church position), Driscoll’s church has used it (according to bloggers) against members wanting to switch care-groups or campuses – basically a form of mind-control, spiritual power moves. I also think there is much to be revealed to us, and we probably won’t get through it all in our life-time anyways, so it is best to acknowledge it, ask God to transform it in us, then patiently work on it with a few close friends. But I am leery of this obsession with hidden psychological sin in Christians these days – reading Jesus life and asking why we aren’t following him and giving up all worldly ties daily is not a hidden issue, and it should be our main focus – if the feet go, the body will follow. Instead of trying to think ourselves right before setting off.

  8. What kind of community did Jesus have? His family thought he was crazy. His home church tried to kill him. Literally. His closest friends and companions for the most part just didn’t get it and often drove him to exasperation. The expressions of support and protection that he received he identified as coming in the spirit of our dark side. The religious authorities and establishment treated him as an enemy to be eradicated as soon as possible. Oftentimes the people he felt closest to in spirit were considered scumbags and bottom feeders by the prevailing community.

    All of these people meant well. They were doing the best they knew how to do. They were for the most part clueless and a hindrance. Ultimately they tortured Him to death and called it a service to God and Community.

    Where did Jesus find what He needed to see this thru? He had no One He could depend on other than God His Father. Sometimes he had to get up in the wee hours of the morning while everyone else was asleep to go out and find the solace and strength and courage to face another day of grasping hands and miscommunication and misunderstanding and outright hostility.

    What a blessing it is for those who find their Community in the flesh. What a very difficult row to hoe for those who don’t. Jesus said, “Follow Me.” He didn’t say, “Worship Me.” He intended us to follow Him as He sought Oneness with God Our Father. He led the Way. That Way may include not finding easy fellowship except with those the Community labels sinners and traitors and outsiders and criminals. I see the Christian Community hurling these epithets at one another, perhaps a little more updated since the time of Jesus.

    The Pharisees promoted a rock solid community. What did Jesus promote?