This vulnerable fortress

[T]hrow off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God — truly righteous and holy. So stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body. — Ephesians 4:22-25, NLT

pray-for-one-anotherAcross the valley, at the top of a craggy, boulder-strewn hill, a white cross looks down on this Zapotec town. Behind the cross, some 500 feet above the valley floor, are the remains of a fortress, “La Fortaleza.” The theory goes that it was built by the Zapotec rulers of this valley, perhaps as a last-ditch defensive position, a safe refuge when they were under attack.

The fortress is roughly square, with massive walls built of rock cemented together with mud. The walls are 4+ meters thick at the base and stand 30 feet high in places. From east to west, the outer perimeter is 1,000 feet across — the construction was a huge undertaking.

Since the fortress is on the summit of the hill, any attackers would have suffered great losses as they attempted to scale the steep, rocky hillside and the outer walls, all while being assaulted by warriors standing high above them.

But if they had breached the first wall, they would have been halted by a second, this one nearly as daunting as the first. Inside of that are the remains of several adobe brick buildings and a great expanse of level ground where the people would have camped.

As I stood on top of the outermost wall and looked down at the open plains below, I felt invulnerable. All by myself, I could easily have fended off an attack from such a position of strength.

I also felt isolated. Sure, a fortress is secure, but who wants to live all alone on top of a mountain? In the valley is where the river flows and the corn grows and the children laugh and neighbors gather in fiesta to eat good food and dance late into the night.

Jesus calls his disciples — you and me — to live holy lives pleasing to God. He also calls us to mix it up with the world. We’re not supposed to hide out on a mountain top; we’re supposed to rub shoulders with sinners, adding salt to their lives and reflecting God’s light in the darkness.

Jesus himself was frequently criticized for not isolating himself from the impure influences of the world:

But the Pharisees and their teachers of religious law complained bitterly to Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with such scum?”
Jesus answered them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor — sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” — Luke 5:30-32 (NLT)

The risk, of course, is that rubbing shoulders moves on to rubbing backs. If we’re not careful, we can find ourselves making compromises we shouldn’t be making.

In Ephesians 4, Paul offers two important defenses against falling into sin:

  • (Verse 23): [L]et the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes…;
  • (Verse 25): [S]top telling lies. Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body.

The first is a frank acknowledgment of our human weakness. We cannot defend ourselves, alone, against temptation. We cannot live holy lives on our own strength. Christ-likeness is accomplished in us and for us by the Holy Spirit.

And it’s not a once-and-for-all thing, but a lifelong process. Everywhere the Scriptures call us to embrace the daily spiritual disciplines of prayer and study of the Word. In Colossians 3:2, Paul says: Set your mind on things that are above, not things that are on earth.

As we submit to the renewing, transforming work of the Holy Spirit, as we focus our minds on Christ and let our thoughts be filled with good things, as we engage our hearts in a continual conversation with Christ in prayer, as we study and meditate on his Word, we will be protected from the influence of sin.

But there is second defensive wall, and it seems to me that this is where Ted Haggard probably sealed his own doom. We must make ourselves accountable to the community of believers by talking honestly about our temptations. We need to confess our sins to one another and draw courage from their prayers and support.

Paul calls us to be honest with each other. Stop lying. Stop faking it. Stop putting on a show. Be vulnerable. Be transparent. Be open with each other.

If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall. The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure. — 1 Corinthians 10:12,13 (NLT)

Sometimes, my pride causes me to clam up when I ought to speak out and confess. We want people to think well of us. We’re afraid they might turn away if they could see our hearts. But Paul wisely says: The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience.

If only Ted Haggard had sought out a couple of faithful, godly men with whom he could have shared his temptations honestly. If only he had made himself accountable to them, been vulnerable with them, sought their prayers and encouragement, perhaps it would have made the difference.

God didn’t intend for us to guard our holiness by isolating ourselves in a lonely hilltop fortress.

We are all parts of the same body, Christ’s body. If we are to fulfill God’s design for our community, we need to risk honesty and openness with each other. We need to build a grace-filled fellowship where each of us can find forgiveness for our failings and the mutual encouragement to live in way that brings honor to the name of Christ.

We need each other. That’s the plain truth. We cannot stand alone.

Photo credit: Eddie Butler at Flickr

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