Lately I’ve been watching the TV Series, “Once Upon A Time.” If you’ve ever seen any of the episodes you will know that, just as its name suggests, the series is about fairy-tale characters whose stories have a bit of a spin.
If you haven’t seen any of the episodes, what you might not know is that, because of the curse of the evil queen Regina (Snow White’s step-mother), the characters are caught in our world and don’t remember who they really are until Emma, the Savior, breaks the curse. If you’re interested, episodes from Season 1 and 2 are on Netflix and other places too, but unfortunately I’m about to spoil a tiny part of the suspense in Season 2.
In the Season 2 episode I watched last night Snow’s guilt over a choice she made in a very stress-filled situation left her agonizing over the evil path she had taken. Her fretting got worse when the evil queen removed Snow’s heart and showed her the small dark splotch that now contaminated Snow’s once pure heart.
Before the episode ended, Snow found a glimmer of hope in the idea that she might find redemption before her whole heart was darkened. Reenergized, she set out on her quest to find a way to cleanse her heart.
Our story is a little different.
Our story is that, ever since our own curse, we no longer come into this world with a pure unblemished heart. Ever since our curse we are born with a darkness that permeates our whole heart. If our eyes are opened and we recognize the darkness, like Snow, we go about looking for redemption.
There is no self-redemption in our story.
Our quest might start out very much like Snow’s. She looks for some good she can do to reverse the spreading darkness in her heart because she thinks redemption is up to her. But, in our story this will not work. There is no self-redemption. For what good can come from a pervasively darkened heart?
There is a Savior in our story.
Some realize the futility of this self-redemption quest. We who do would surely become utterly hopeless except in our story there is also a Savior who can break the dark curse that invades us and everything around us. This Savior opens our eyes and shows us who we really are. He shows us our darkened hearts and gives us the promise of a totally pure heart that comes with the promise of eternal life with him. We must believe he is true or the promise will not be ours, and we do believe. But that is not the end of the story.
True believers are caught in the middle of the middle of our story.
Actually a pure heart is the end of our story. And in one sense it is the beginning of the middle of our story for what is promised already is.
It is the middle of the middle of the story where something must keep being done. The middle of the middle of the story is where the Savior must continue to work his power in us to fulfill his promise. He does this, just as he did in the beginning of the middle of our story, not just by showing us our true selves but by giving his own Spirit to us and showing us as much as we can see (for our eyes are not yet clear) of his beautiful purity – his glorious holiness.
And so, with redemption found and a pure and blameless heart guaranteed, the middle of the middle of our story is all about purification. However, we learn soon enough that this purification of our hearts is not to be without pain.
We are stuck in the conflict of the plot.
For true believers the middle of the middle of the story often goes like this: First, we are faced with some type of stress. Maybe someone threatens to harm our family like in Snow’s story. Maybe the stress comes from a prolonged or deadly sickness. Or maybe family, financial, or work pressures bear in on us. Or maybe we’re just tired or hungry or frustrated.
Next, we react by starting down the easy but evil path. This is the part of our story where bits of unbelief have entered. This is where we act in a way that shows we have some temporary doubts about the Savior and his promises.
As we walk this evil path, we come upon the Savior who takes out our already redeemed heart and lovingly shows us, once again and to our great surprise, that there is some darkness still lingering in there.
We do not fret long or fall into despair because we believe the Savior is powerful and good and self-sufficient. He loves us and his promises will yet still hold. Our hearts have already changed and they will be pure.
But we are remorseful about our unbelief and the trouble that it surely caused. We feel sad, if we love the Savior, because we have dishonored him by not believing him. And we remember that the salvation we claim is only ours through belief – belief that is ongoing.
Finally, if it is granted to us (and we are assured that it will be for the promise of a new heart is the guarantee of it), we truly repent of our unbelief. The darkness recedes, and more light enters our heart.
A wholly pure heart is the end of our story.
This middle of the middle of the story, or something very much like it, repeats itself until the end of the story. In the end, we are caught up in the beatific vision and, for the first time, see the Savior face to face through the eyes of a perfectly pure heart. I say the first time, because even through we have seen the Savior before, we have not seen with such clarity for we can only see with a pure heart and we can only have a pure heart through seeing.
Staggering is the reason we stay stuck in conflict.
The 17th century Christian thinker John Owen, called the parts of our story where we waver between belief and unbelief, “staggering.” This staggering can come prior to saving belief or it can come in the middle of it. In his sermon, The steadfastness of the promises, and the sinfulness of staggering, Owen describes staggering this way:
It is as a thing of small weight in the air: the weight that it hath carries it downwards; and the air, with some breath of wind, bears it up again, so that it waves to and fro: sometimes it seems as though it would fall by its own weight; and sometimes again, as though it would mount quite out of sight; but poised between both, it tosseth up and down, without any great gaining either way. The promise draws the soul upward, and the weight of its unbelief sinks it downward. Sometimes the promise attracts so powerfully, you would think the heart quite drawn up into it; and sometimes again unbelief presses down, that you would think it gone forever; — but neither prevails utterly, the poor creature swags between both. This is to stagger. …
A poor creature looking upon the promise … staggers, — he is in a great strait: arguments arise on both sides, he knows not how to determine them; and so, hanging in suspense, he staggereth.
Some words and phrases Owen used to further explain staggering are: disputing, doubting, wavering, being slow of heart to believe, having little faith, failure to close on the promise, hesitation, and lack of assurance.
This staggering can occur prior to initial belief (as Owen is describing above) and can continue after it. For a “true believer” (Owen’s term), staggering does not mean salvation is lost. In his sermon, The Strength of Faith, Part 1, Owen explains it this way:
There may be a true faith, that yet may have many troublesome, perplexing doubtings accompanying it, many sinful staggerings and waverings attending it; and yet not be overthrown, but continue true faith still. Men may be true believers, and yet not strong believers.
A “true believer” Owen says is one who abides in Christ and his promises. He is steadfast in his faith. Owen explains:
This steadfastness in believing doth not exclude … all doubting from within. So long as we have flesh, though faith be steadfast, we shall have unbelief; and that bitter root will bring forth some fruit, more or less, according as Satan gets advantage to water it. But it excludes a falling [he means a permanent falling] under temptation, and consequently that trouble and disquietness which ensues thereon: as likewise abiding perplexing doubts, which make us stagger to and fro between hope and fear, questioning whether we close with Christ or not, — have any interest in the promise or not; and is attended with disconsolation and dejectedness of spirit, with real uncertainty of the event. …
This, then, is that which I intend by steadfastness in believing, — the establishment of our hearts in the receiving of Christ, as tendered by the love of the Father, to the peace and settlement of our souls and consciences. And that our hearts should be thus fixed, settled, and established, — that we should live in the sense and power of it, — is, I say, exceeding acceptable unto God.
What kind of belief prevents staggering? Here, from his sermon on the sinfulness of staggering, Owen helps us again:
The kind of faith that does not stagger depends on who we believe in.
- We must believe in a Savior who has the power to raise the dead to life again.
- We must believe in a Savior who is able to call things, which do not exist, into being.
I will add that, when we are in not so pleasant circumstances, it is also helpful to believe in a Savior who is good, who loves us, and who works everything, even the discomfort we are in, for the eternal good of those who love him.
This kind of faith depends on how we believe.
- We must keep believing, standing firm in position of steadfast hope, that the Savior will prevail in keeping his promises even when all natural helps have disappeared to the point that the Savior’s promises seem impossible to accomplish.
- We must have a strong faith that carries us above all the impediments, impossibilities, and improbabilities that make it seem like the Savior will not fulfill his promises.
- We must be fully persuaded that the Savior who promises is able to fulfill his promises.
- We must not stagger or sway in unbelief between what the Savior has said and evidence against it. We must not doubt that God will fulfill what he has promised.
Staggering and God glory.
Owen explains that when unbelief arises we are actually calling some attribute of God into question.
See, now, how steadfastness in believing gives glory to God. It advanceth and magnifieth all these properties of God, and gives all his attributes their due exaltation. An excellent estimation of them is included in it. Might I here descend to particulars, I could manifest that there is not any property of God, whereby he hath made himself known to us, but steadfastness in believing gives it the glory which in some measure is due unto it; and that all doubting arises from our calling some divine attribute into question. It were easy to show how this gives God the glory of his faithfulness, truth, power, righteousness, grace, mercy, goodness, love, patience, and whatever else God hath revealed himself to be.
The ideas of an already pure heart that is not yet pure and of true belief while failing to believe are difficult concepts. Perhaps a previous post, Already? Not Yet? Which is it? will be helpful.
For more on the idea of indwelling sin (remaining darkness) Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s sermon, Indwelling Sin, June 1, 1856, may be helpful.