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I’m The Problem

Read Jonah 1:1-12 and Genesis 3:1-13 to start.

American comedian Flip Wilson was known as the first black TV superstar, he was a frequent guest on variety shows, did a number of comedy albums, and hosted his own show for four seasons. There was a catchphrase he popularized in the early 1970s, “The devil made me do it.” You’ve probably heard someone say this, or maybe you’ve said it yourself. The same phrase was used as the title of a song by Dutch rock band Golden Earring, and in that song of course it’s about someone not willing to accept responsibility for their illegal actions, specifically the theft of a fur coat and a BMW.

We don’t often want to admit when we have done something wrong, when we have messed up, when we have sinned. It’s not a new thing, it’s what we see in the passage that we just read. That would of course be the first example of someone not wanting to admit guilt, and of pointing the finger at someone else. We see first Adam, blaming his wife for giving him the forbidden fruit. He also blames God, he says “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me” which suggests that Adam was looking for any excuse for deflect blame from himself. Then in the next verse, Eve likewise deflects, she says that the serpent beguiled her, and so she ate. The serpent, of course, lacking fingers, had nowhere he could point to, nowhere he could seek to pass off any of the blame.

Pointing the finger is a common human reaction when confronted with our own wrongdoings. We don’t enjoy feeling guilty, we don’t want to be in the wrong, and so claiming that part or all the fault is due to someone or something else is a frequent go-to. And so we blame anyone and everyone for our own failures. It’s hardly limited to “the devil made me do it.” We blame our friends, we blame our coworkers, our teachers, our bosses, we blame our siblings. That’s one that I hear at home fairly often, he did this or she did that, and so I, you know how it goes.

We blame our parents, that’s a big one, and an easy finger to point, because speaking as a parent, I’m far from perfect, and as someone who of course had parents, they were not perfect either. There’s also past trauma, both real and imagined, there are so many things that have happened to us that are wrong and traumatic that it’s easy to find one or more and say that this is behind our current misdeeds. There’s colonialism and the wrongs of the past, those are popular blame magnets these days. And of course there’s society. The various evils of our society, our modern culture, from technology to impatience to moral laxity, to on-demand everything, to inequality, you name it, society has a lot to answer for, to be sure. Those are all convenient places to deflect blame.

There are people who spend years in therapy because of how they feel their upbringing messed them up, how they feel society has lead them astray, and how they have suffered from all manner of trauma and don’t know how to deal with it. I’m not saying that there is no place for therapy, in fact, some level of therapy or counselling is often useful, from full on clinical therapy with a mental health professional to simply sharing with someone who is willing to listen. In the past there was a certain level of stigma involved with seeking help for mental health concerns, there may well be less stigma today, but it’s still there.

We don’t like feeling that we need help, much as we don’t like feeling that we have done wrong. But we do need help, on some level, even if we don’t want to admit it. It requires humility, and our natural pride does not like that, just as our pride does not want to accept responsibility for our mistakes and our wrong choices.

Yes, there are may well be factors that contribute to our own behaviour, our own choices, whether those are right or wrong. But ultimately, we do make our own choices. The serpent may well have beguiled Eve, but she took the fruit and bit into it. And Adam likewise accepted it from her, and ate it. They were not compelled or forced. They were tempted, and they succumbed. They chose to do wrong.

In James chapter 1, we see that temptation is inevitable. Reading from verse 12 (Jas 1:12) Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him. (Jas 1:13)  Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: (Jas 1:14) But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. (Jas 1:15)  Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.

This is a familiar passage, and one that is certainly applicable to us this morning. There are a few key things that I would like to point out, first, that we should expect temptation. Every man is tempted, it says at verse 14. Our own experience no doubt confirms this, because who hasn’t been tempted? For that matter, who hasn’t been tempted within the last 24 hours? Not that you have been necessarily tempted to do some horrific atrocity or serious crime, you may not have been tempted to go about commit murders or robbing banks, but even a small temptation to do a small sin is still temptation, still sin. Saying something mean to your sibling or your friend, taking something that isn’t yours, sharing that bit of juicy gossip that may or may not be true, but is certainly hurtful, each of those feels insignificant, but each is still wrong. We might not feel that we give in to temptation all that much, but we certainly experience it all the time.

Second, we are not tempted by God. We see this spelled out clearly in verse 13. He does not tempt us to sin, He does not set us up to fail. That being said, nor does He shield us from each and every temptation that might cross our path. If that were the case, then we would not experience temptation, and certainly, that is not how things go in this world, in this life. God allows us to encounter temptation, but He does not put it in our way. We’re usually far too adept at finding it all on our own, and the world certainly does not hold back when it comes to providing all manner of enticements to sin. What’s more, Satan will not hesitate to present temptation at any opportunity, usually when we are particularly vulnerable.

We don’t get to blame God when we are tempted, just as we do not get to blame God when we fail, or when life throws us curveballs, or when it feels that every single step forward we take is followed by two steps backward. God does not tempt us to do evil, He wants us to succeed, He wants us to follow in His footsteps.

This brings us to the third point that I would like us to notice, and it’s in verse 14 again. After every one of us is tempted, which we are, when we fail it is because we are drawn away of our own lust. We might commonly use the word lust to refer to a specific category of sin, but the Greek word here, epithumia (ep-ee-thoo-MEE-ah) means longing or desire, especially for what we should not have. It could be any desire that is not permitted for us, whether to have something that belongs to another, or to do something that is harmful to ourselves or others, or to simply want to have what we have been told we cannot have.

That’s what Adam and Eve did, they were told not to have the fruit of that one tree, only one tree in the entire garden, but that’s the fruit they ended up eating, because they had been told no. Yes, the serpent might have nudged them in that direction, but they were drawn away of their own desire, and so they sinned.

In the next verse, we see that lust brings forth sin, and sin brings forth death. The analogy here is like a baby being carried to term and then born, only instead of a new life being brought into the world, it’s quite the opposite, it’s sin and death.

We may want to blame any number of outside causes, but the problem is within. Read verse 14 again, But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. It doesn’t say drawn away by the world, or by the devil, or by bad friends, or by any other thing. All those may be contributing factors, but ultimately, it’s our own lust, our own selfish desires for things that we should not have. That’s what takes us down.

Earlier, we read from the first chapter of the book of Jonah. It’s likely a familiar account already, but in case anyone needs a refresher, the Lord told Jonah to go and proclaim doom over the city of Ninevah, future capital of the Assyrian empire, but Jonah decided he was not keen on this. He fled by ship in the opposite direction, and God sent a storm as a consequence. With the ship in peril, I’ll reread from verse 7. (Jon 1:7)  And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah. (Jon 1:8)  Then said they unto him, Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; What is thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou? (Jon 1:9)  And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land. (Jon 1:10)  Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.

We’ll pause there for now. Jonah had directly disobeyed God, and now he was faced with the very real and very serious consequences of his disobedience. And not only Jonah faced these consequences, he had a boatload of sailors who were terrified for their lives because of what he had done. But despite his initial refusal to obey, Jonah did not point fingers. He did not make excuses. He did not try to explain away what he had done.

We don’t know the exact reasoning behind Jonah’s ill-fated cruise, why he so aggressively resisted going to Ninevah. Was it because he was afraid of the Assyrians? A lot of folks were, the Assyrians had a growing empire, renown for aggression and cruelty. They invented the concept of ethnic displacement, moving populations from one region to another in order to break local control. They were certainly not nice, pleasant, or safe. Or was Jonah afraid that his message would bring salvation and change? Ninevah was a rising city in this empire, and would soon become the capital. They had already subjugated a number of smaller nations, and would soon conquer Israel. If Ninevah was destroyed, that would break Assyrian power.

Either of these could be seen as a good excuse to avoid Ninevah. But we are not told that Jonah made excuses, rather, when confronted with the issue, he admitted that he was at fault, that the danger they all were in from the storm was in fact his fault. We’ll read on from verse 11.

(Jon 1:11)  Then said they unto him, What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous.(Jon 1:12)  And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.

There’s a popular song from last year that talks about this, about recognizing that you are at fault, that you are the problem. For a few months it was basically inescapable on the radio. I would not recommend that anyone takes their theology from a Taylor Swift song, but the refrain for “Anti-Hero” starts with the line “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.” I’ll stop there, if you haven’t heard the song that’s enough for you to get the idea. If you have heard it, then I may have already gotten it stuck in your head, and I’m sorry.

Acknowledging that the problem was with him is exactly what Jonah did. He admitted that it was for his sake the tempest was upon them, and that he should be punished. He doesn’t say it in a catchy pop song, but the sentiment is no different. I’m the problem. It’s me. That is exactly what Jonah does here. Say what you will about Jonah and his maturity, his obedience, his misplaced priorities and his lack of concern for his fellow man, but he did realize that he was flawed, and that something had to be done. Something drastic.

Sometimes we don’t want to see that there is a problem in the first place, and so we pretend there’s nothing wrong. Sometimes we don’t want to do anything about the problem, and so we’re willing to endure it, live with it, work around it. Other times we blame anyone and everyone for the underlying problem, and therefore expect them to fix it, or to excuse our own mistakes as being justified by the problem.

We like to externalize our problems, to keep them somehow outside of ourselves. How many times have you heard someone say “I have an anger problem,” or “I have a drinking problem” or I have any number of other issues that you could list? How many times have you said that yourself?

Ultimately, it’s not so much that we have a problem, no matter what that problem happens to look like, it’s that we are the problem. I’m the problem.

Each and every one of us has a sin problem. If you don’t know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Saviour, then that problem is completely unresolved, and it will be your undoing. In that case, you need help, you need salvation.

That’s where Jonah was at this point in the story. He had reached the end of his rope, he had run out of other options. He knew he couldn’t run anymore, because the problem was not in Israel, and the problem was not in Ninevah. The problem was on that boat. He was the problem.  

We know the rest of Jonah’s story. He was tossed overboard, much to the sailor’s chagrin, and a great fish sent by God swallowed him up, only to puke him up on the beach three days later following his prayer of repentance. It was only after this that he did go and preach to the city of Ninevah. He did obey God, eventually, but he definitely took the long way around to get there. And before he did, he had to admit that he was his own worst problem. 

Admitting that you are the problem is the first real step in doing something about it. Denying that we are the problem only makes things worse, only prevents us from seeking help. Those of us who do know Christ already, we do not have the danger of eternal fire hanging over our heads, but we all do still have a sin problem on some level. We will need help with that. We should not pretend otherwise, because then we will not get help, and things will not improve.

There’s a short parable in Luke chapter 18 that illustrates the difference. Reading from verse 10.  (Luk 18:10)  Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. (Luk 18:11)  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. (Luk 18:12)  I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. (Luk 18:13)  And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Luk 18:14)  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

It’s easy to look at someone else whose behaviour is worse than ours, someone who is more noticeably sinful, and think that they have a problem that they need to deal with, and we don’t. But that Pharisee certainly had a problem with pride. He thought he was pretty good all around. We might say in today’s common church lingo that he was blessed. But he didn’t go home any different than when he went to the temple. He was not justified, because he didn’t think he had to be.

The publican, he asked for mercy, because he knew that he needed it. And thus he received, not because of his behaviour, his righteousness, but because he said “I’m a sinner, have mercy on me.” He didn’t make excuses, he didn’t blame anyone else for his sin, he knew that the problem was with him alone.

In John’s gospel, in chapter 5 we see a man afflicted by a problem, and who needed help. Let’s turn there and read a few verses. Reading from verse 1. (Joh 5:1)  After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. (Joh 5:2)  Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. (Joh 5:3)  In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. (Joh 5:4)  For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. (Joh 5:5)  And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years. (Joh 5:6)  When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole? (Joh 5:7)  The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me. (Joh 5:8)  Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. (Joh 5:9)  And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath.

This man had a problem, and had suffered with it for the better part of four decades. He thought there might be some sort of miracle cure, this angel that went into the water, but it didn’t exactly work out for him. Try as he might, he couldn’t get there. His best efforts were not enough, were not even close to being enough. He could not fix himself.

Jesus could, and Jesus did. It’s not that the man was worthy or virtuous or somehow deserving of help, it’s not that his case was particularly compelling, or that his affliction was worse than everyone else who was there. It’s that he needed help, he was offered help, and he accepted it.

It’s only after we stop hiding from our problems, stop running from them, stop making excuses, stop finding other things or other people to blame, it’s only then that we can look for a solution. And it’s only after we realize that we are the problem, it’s not some external thing, it’s our fallen sin nature, only then will we look for help. And it’s only after we turn to our Creator, when we recognize that only He can save us, only He can fix us, that we actually find help. And it is only after we look to the Lord Jesus Christ, to His sacrifice on the cross that pays the price of all our sin, it is only then that we are helped.

Jonah ran from his problems, but found that he got nowhere, apart from into trouble, trouble he couldn’t get himself out. The lame man, he couldn’t do anything to fix his affliction, no matter how long he waited or how he thought he might help himself. The publican, he knew he needed mercy, and so he went right to the source. All three got the help they needed when they realized that they could not help themselves, because the problem was in them. They were the problem.

Adam and Eve, they made excuses, they pointed fingers, but they did not accept blame. We don’t  read in scripture that their relationship with God was ever restored to even a shadow of how it had been before they sinned. The Pharisee, he didn’t even see that he might have a problem, he was too busy being proud and feeling blessed. We don’t read that he ever changed his ways, either.

A couple of weeks ago I preached about Zacchaeus, who wished to see the Lord, and who climbed a tree and got more than his wish. He knew he was a sinner, he knew he was the problem, and Christ saw him and saved him. That account, which is just one chapter after the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, ends with a very well known verse. (Luk 19:10)  For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.

I don’t know exactly where you are spiritually this morning. I don’t know if you are walking closely with God, or maybe walking not so close, or if you are running in the other direction. But no matter if you are doing well or doing very, very poorly, you need God in your life, and probably you need Him more than you realize, or more than you admit. We can’t fix ourselves, but he can, and He will, if we will let Him.

It’s only the lost that can be found. It’s only the broken that will be repaired. It’s only the sick who need healing. It’s only when we agree that we are the problem that God will provide the solution.