Make war on the urge to sulk when you don’t get your way. This is such an important topic, and I’m glad we can get to it today. Pastor John joins us over the telephone. The topic comes up in an email question from a podcast listener named Christopher in Seattle, Washington.
“Pastor John, thank you for this podcast. When I get angry in my home, I have a tendency to shut down. I don’t lash out in anger or cuss; I sulk. I give my wife the silent treatment. I know this is wrong. Please help me better understand how to communicate in my home when or shortly after conflict flares up. I want to lead well and reflect Christ more. As a leader of your home, what have you learned over the years?”
Seven years ago, I took a leave of absence, specifically about eight months in fact, to do a self-assessment of my own soul, and my family, and my ministry. I was still preaching and pastoring at the time.
“It’s easy to describe our sins in a self-excusing way, but if you name them and define them, they start to look bad.”
I came back from that leave having put my finger on five besetting sins of John Piper that I more or less count as corrupt, fallen personality traits (which is no excuse). They’re just part of me. I’ve seen them for decades, and it was just good to get a name on them, isolate them, understand them, confess them. Here they are: selfishness, anger, self-pity, quickness to blame, and sullenness. I mention this because when Christopher said sulking was one of his problems, I think he means what I mean by sullenness.
Perhaps the most helpful thing I can do is to walk Christopher through my process of self-understanding and how the Lord has helped me to make some war on these sins. Let me name them and just put a sentence of description on each one so that we just let the ugliness be revealed. It’s so easy to describe our sins in a self-excusing way, but if you name your sins and then define them, it starts to look pretty bad.
Here’s what I mean by the first one, selfishness. I have five things that characterize my selfishness.
- My selfishness is a reflex to expect to be served.
- My selfishness is a reflex to feel that I am owed.
- My selfishness is a reflex to want praise.
- My selfishness is a reflex to expect things to go my way.
- My selfishness is a reflex to feel that I have the right to react negatively to being crossed.
The reason I’m using the word reflex to describe selfishness is because there is zero premeditation. I don’t have to decide to be selfish. When these responses happen, they’re coming from my old nature, not from reflection. They are the marks of original sin in my life, and I am guilty for them.
Now, what happens when this selfishness is challenged by someone? Here’s where the other sins come in.
Children of Selfishness
For example, anger. I have a strong emotional opposition to the obstacle in my way. I tighten up, and I want to strike out verbally or physically.
Self-pity comes up when I feel wounded. Others can recognize in me that I want to be admired or pitied for my sense of being wounded or mistreated by someone. I want others to know it, recognize it, and feel sorry for me.
“I’m using the word ‘reflex’ to describe selfishness because there is zero premeditation. I don’t have to decide to be selfish.”
Quickness to blame is a reflex to attribute to others the cause of the frustrating situation I’m in. Others can feel it in a tone of voice, a look on the face, a sideways query, or an outright accusation.
Then lastly, sullenness or sulking. This is the sinking discouragement, the moodiness, the hopelessness, the unresponsiveness, the withdrawn deadness of emotion. Of course, the effect on marriage is that my wife feels blamed and disapproved of rather than cherished and cared for. Tender emotions start to die, hope is depleted, strength to carry on in the hardships of ministry wanes. That’s my diagnosis.
Fight the Flesh
Now, Charles Wesley taught us to sing, “He breaks the power of canceled sin.” When he did, he was teaching the fundamental truth about how the cross of Christ relates to our battle with our own sin.
The cross cancels sins by faith for all who believe in Jesus. Then on the basis of that cancellation of our sins, the power of our actual sinning is broken. It’s not the other way around. There would be no gospel and no music if we tried to sing, “He cancels the guilt of our conquered sins.” That’s not gospel. First the cancellation, then the conquering, which means that the link between the cross and my conquered sin is a Holy Spirit–empowered willing. It works a willing in me.
Listen to these texts.
Romans 7:6: “Having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit.” I serve by the Spirit, because I died on the cross.
Romans 8:13: “By the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body.” I put sin to death by the Spirit.
Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.” I am living, because I died and Christ is alive in a new I, which trusts him.
Philippians 2:12–13: “Beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out” — or literally produce, bring about, or effect — “your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This is the most important one, at least in my experience it proved to be most important.
With these texts, especially the last one, in every single case, I’m working. I’m expanding effort. I’m willing. I’m serving. I’m putting sin to death. My will is engaged, but in every case, my will is empowered by the will of another.
War on a Winter Night
Let me close with an illustration of how this has been working over say the past seven, eight years of my life in a more effective way. I really do feel that even today, seven years on from some of these key discoveries, God has given Noël and me fresh and new victories.
It was a Sunday evening. This was years ago while I was still in ministry. I was making these discoveries and trying to apply these things in a fresh way. It was a Sunday evening. It was cozy, snowy outside. Noël, Talitha, and I were at home alone. I was looking forward to something we could do together. I had this expectation, and you know how discouragements and anger come from shattered expectations.
Talitha comes in from the dining room and says, “Mommy and I are going to watch Super Nanny on the computer.” They set it up on a stool, and they sit on the love seat together and start watching it. They don’t even say anything to me. They don’t ask. They don’t explain. They don’t propose anything else.
I feel like poor little John Piper. I feel shut out, ignored.
Now, at that moment, the old John Piper feels an enormous temptation to anger, self-pity, blaming, sullenness. That temptation I think is as dangerous for me, as big for me, as some big sexual temptation. I immediately said in my heart, because I had Philippians 2:12–13 in my mind, that I’m supposed to work out my salvation. I’m supposed to bring about victory over these sins. I immediately said no to those rising temptations.
“There would be no gospel and no music if we tried to sing, ‘He cancels the guilt of our conquered sins.’”
I quietly, in the power of that no, which I said by the Holy Spirit to those temptations, went upstairs without any flare of woundedness. I didn’t, in a poor, wimpy, wounded way, try and make them feel bad. I just quietly went upstairs to my study, and that’s not unusual, and I made war.
I turned my mind, and my heart, by the power of God in his Spirit, toward the promises of God, and the surety of the cross, and the love of my Father, and the wealth of my inheritance, and the blessing of that Lord’s day which he had poured out earlier that morning, and the patience of Christ, and the fact that my wife and daughter in their own minds were not snubbing me.
I held those truths before my eyes, and I beat down the anger, self-pity, blaming, and sullenness. I beat it down and beat it down until it died.
Later that night, I went downstairs, and I mentioned to Noël — in a way I never would’ve been able to before, without any subtle innuendo and in a non-condemning tone, which was a miracle — I mentioned that I was surprised we didn’t do anything together. We just quietly worked it out.
Compared to the way things used to go, it was an amazing victory.
Act the Miracle
Yes, it would be far better if there were no war in John Piper’s soul at all against such rising selfishness, self-pity, anger, sulking, and sullenness. Yes, that would be better.
It will be that way, and has been some days. But oh, how I thank God that he breaks the power of canceled sin, and he does it sometimes through our Spirit-empowered battle with our own temptation in fear and trembling, because God himself works it in us.
That’s what I pray for Christopher in his marriage and his battle with sullenness. Christopher, I pray that you would reckon your sin canceled, and then you would carry it into a room somewhere, and you would hammer on it for an hour by the promises of God.