“Culture is seen in what people do unthinkingly, what is “natural” to them and therefore requires no explanation or justification.”
Dallas Willard – The Divine Conspiracy
I was 3 days into a spiritual retreat a number of weeks ago when I realized that God was not speaking to me as I had hoped that He would. I know that there are several possible explanations for God’s silence, but this time I knew in my heart that Psalms 66:18 applied: “If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” But what sin was hindering our fellowship? I could admit that sin is a regular part of my life, but could not put a finger on anything in particular. That in itself was disconcerting – that I was not even aware of the wrong that I practice.
So I began to focus my praying on that issue, and was answered quickly, as God tends to do when we are serious about such matters. He confronted me with my pride and selfishness – things I’d long struggled with but needed to be reminded of at that time. He also brought up some new issues that I had not been aware of previously: contempt for others and idolatry. These, I think, were hidden from my awareness largely because they are socially acceptable sins in our culture.
Just think about the culture we live in, and what it honors and values most: independance (the pride of not needing others), selfishness (looking out for “#1”), worldy success (idols of ‘security’ and recognition), and contempt (looking down on people that cannot perform to my standards – a popular variation of this is priding myself in being part of the ‘in’ crowd and taking ‘appropriate’ notice of those that are not) – these can easily escape our notice because they are such an integral part of American life. (And of course this list is by no means complete.) Life in our culture requires (on some levels) participation in these crimes: if not for survival itself, for acceptance as a “normal” person. Non-participants are quickly singled out for contempt and ostracism.
This has led me to begin questioning nearly everything I do: exactly what am I doing, and why. Not as a self-awareness project – many habits are too deeply ingrained for me to see objectively – but in asking the Lord to show me what’s in my heart, and to reveal to me any hurtful way. For example, when in a particular conversation, is my goal to somehow build myself up in their eyes, or am giving of myself in loving service to the other person? Am I allowing myself to need others, or am I faithlessly building walls of self-protection? Am I loving my neighbor as God has commanded me to, or do I look down on him because of his fears and limitations?
Our culture tells us that there is nothing wrong with these actions and attitudes, but they hurt others and ourselves, and are part of living faithlessly independent of God. And “what is not of faith is sin” (Hebrews 10:38, 11:6, and Romans 14:23). Our culture also denies the existence of sin, and even when we don’t accept that view, we tend to minimize it as not a big deal. But God says that we do sin, that it is a big deal (Ezekiel 18:24), and that if we hope to have fellowship with Him, we must pay careful attention to what’s in our heart.
An island in Allagash Lake, Maine, as seen from Allagash Mountain shortly after sunrise.