Posts tagged sin
1 John is an interesting read. So much of it is devoted, seemingly, to identifying who is truly a follower of God and who isn’t. It very much seems like some kind of litmus test for Christians. But if so, it is a confusing one.
In one sentence, John says that once you have become a child of God, you no longer sin. In another, he says that we all sin and need to ask forgiveness. So what’s going on here?
Well, I think we can find a clue when we look at the audience of John’s letter. John is writing, according to his own words, to believers who have already accepted the teaching about Jesus. These are people who would have been well aware that simply accepting Jesus does not make a person perfect. However, John is trying to encourage and challenge these believers by saying, in a sense, “Once you’ve been washed clean, you would never jump back into the filth, right?”
His words show how foolish and stubborn we all are – those of us who know the truth and have glimpsed the reality of God and yet continue to sin. Our actions are like a cheating spouse who, though his wife knows of his indiscretions and has forgiven him, continues to pile misery on misery, affair on top of affair. Now, you could certainly the sanity of the wife, continuing to forgive her husband, but the greater flaw is in the husband.
Likewise, if God had peers, they would probably call him a fool for continuing to stick with us – for persevering in his grace and forgiveness for us. But is is we who have the greater flaw. If we really loved him as we say we do, wouldn’t we just stop the cheating?
Several weeks ago, a friend of mine challenged herself to memorize Hebrews 12. Not only that, but she invited several of us to join her in the challenge as a way to encourage each other. I decided to jump in, having not memorized any lengthy passage of scripture in many years. I wasn’t sure if I could do it or not, but, alas, by the end of November, I had the entire chapter memorized and, for the most part, I can recite it today with only a few hiccups here and there.
One of the verses that I had difficulty processing in Hebrews 12 was verse 14:
Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)
Unlike most people, the peace thing doesn’t really intimidate me. I am typically able to live at peace with people. The troublesome part is when you combine the ideas of holiness and peace – especially in the way that we are instructed to do in Hebrews. You see, the holiness that is called for here is not just personal holiness, but a corporate holiness. This kind of holiness requires, among other things, that we help to correct the unholy behavior of others. That is where the whole peace thing gets more difficult.
Have you ever been forced to confront someone about sinful behavior? Maybe it was something “big” like adultery or something we might consider a more minor offense like, say, gossip. Whatever the case, such confrontations are never comfortable and have the potential to be explosive. In those instances, how in the world are we supposed to live at peace with everyone?
Well, first, I take some comfort in the words, “Make every effort,” which acknowledge that sometimes peace may be out of reach. After all, peace between two parties depends on a desire for peace from both parties. I can only do so much. The other person has a part to play, too. However, upon further reflection, I’ve realized that my part in that effort is actually much larger than I initially thought.
You see, I’ve come to realize that there is a lot of groundwork that goes into living at peace with everyone. Part of the “every effort” that we’re supposed to make involves all of the conversations, energy and time spent investing in relationships long before any confrontation. Making every effort to live in peace means that I must first establish a baseline of love, support and trust with this person. They have to know that I am for them and that I see them as created in God’s image and that I love them like a brother or sister. That takes a lot of work.
However, it is only through this kind of groundwork that we can live in peace with someone while also confronting them. I heard a story recently of a friend who was, in a very loving way, shown a few ways that he was hindering or could potentially hinder his organizations ministry objectives – the things they all agreed that God wanted them to do. It wasn’t a laundry list of why people didn’t like him or how bad of a leader he was. It was simply an acknowledgement of a few weaknesses and blind spots that, if he and the organization were going to be effective, he would need to be aware of and work on.
Now, I don’t care who you are, that kind of stuff is hard to hear. But at the end of that time, he said that his response was not anger or even insecurity. Instead, it was love – not only love, but recognition of the fact that those who had confronted him were doing so out of a place of love and great admiration. Their list of things he was doing right and ways he was contributing to the team was a mile long, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as beneficial if they had stopped with the good stuff. Instead, they were helping him become a better leader and a better person by showing him some things that he may or may not have even recognized in himself.
At the end of the day, theirs was a call to holiness – not regarding issues of deep sin, but issues of attitude, communication and leadership – and their approach was one built on a foundation of love and respect, the groundwork of peace. The result is that my friend was able to both be called to holiness and to live in peace with those around him. It takes a lot of work to get there, but it is what we are called to do. Not making that effort to live in peace actually calls into question our desire for holiness.
Have you ever considered what it means to be a servant or slave of God? If God is all things good, what does a slave of “goodness” look like, act like and do? Paul talks about the idea of a transformation from being slaves of sin to being slaves of righteousness.
When I think of a slave, I think of someone who has no choice – someone who must do what his master says, regardless of his or desire. The idea, then, of us being slaves to sin is easy for me to understand. As Paul says, there is something inside of me – a sinful nature – that compels me to sin, even when the better part of me opposes sin.
But what does it mean to become a slave to righteousness? If we could truly “give ourselves over” to righteousness, then we would be compelled by it to do righteous things. In other words, as slaves of righteousness, we would have no choice but to act righteously, because our master ordered us to do so.
It makes me wonder how in the world we, as a human race, got so deeply entrenched in sin. We recognize righteousness when we see it. In fact, there is something built into our nature that recognizes good and evil, justice and injustice, even when we are extremely young. However, there is some other part of us – perhaps a curse passed from generation to generation – that fights against what is right and urges us to do what is wrong.
Paul says as much about himself:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. (Romans 7:15)
We’ve all felt that way from time to time – like we are powerless to do what we know we should do. We are often too weak to fight that sinful urge. That’s why emancipation from slavery to sin simply isn’t enough. Yes, Jesus has given us our freedom, but, without becoming slaves to righteousness, we will still be easily persuaded to do the bidding of our former master, sin.
If I’m going to be bound by anything, let it be righteousness. If I am going to be a slave of anyone, let it be the perfect, gracious and loving God.
It is, to me, one of the most profound prayers a person can pray:
“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13)
In these simple words, the tax collector in Jesus’ story has come to a profound realization. While the overly-religious Pharisee has attempted to state his case before God – to justify himself by reciting all the good things he has done – the tax collector has no illusions that he is worthy of receiving anything from God. Aware of his own faults, he pleads with God for mercy.
The Pharisee doesn’t see himself that way. He would be insulted by the insinuation that he was anything but pure, holy and blameless. For a man like this, the idea that he wasn’t worthy of God’s gifts was an insult.
However, according to Jesus, this man who attempted to justify himself before God completely missed the mark. Meanwhile, the man who made the self-aware proclamation that he was a sinner in need of God’s mercy – that man went home justified before God.
I don’t know about you, but this is a prayer I could repeat with authenticity every single day – “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Every single day, I’m a sinner. Every single day, I need God’s mercy. If I don’t pray anything else, I should be able to utter those words.
The good news, of course, is that God does and will have mercy on us. He knows all about us. He knows how badly we mess things up on a daily basis. In fact, he’s known that all along and he’s already made the decision to forgive us and show us mercy.
Given that fact, he must still really long to hear us say those words – to recognize the state we’re in and that he is the only one who can fix our situation. God’s heart is to show us mercy. His desire is to give that gift to us. All we have to do is ask.
One thing about reading the gospels back to back is that you end up reading through the story of Jesus’ brutal trial and death over and over and over and over again. And, while it’s tempting to simply gloss over this text, the reality is that we need to read it more slowly, more deeply and more intently. This is the whole point!
The story of humanity is a story of a people who turned their backs on God. We deserve nothing from him and yet, he sent his son to give us everything. And when he sent his son, we killed him because he threatened our way of life. The ironic thing is that Jesus’ death actually enabled a life for us that we don’t even fully understand.
In our selfishness, we killed the most selfless person in history and, in a really weird way, made things a lot better for ourselves. When we read this story, it should make us sick. It should make us uncomfortable.
For me, Jesus’ crucifixion (and reading it over and over) reminds me that God knew this was what was going to have to happen. God read the book before he jumped into the story. He knew that this was going to be the worst day in history and, had he wanted to, he could have simply avoided it.
If you ever wonder how much God loves you, just go back and read this story and let that truth sink in. He looked at the death of his only son and said, “Yeah, but it’s worth it. They’re worth it.”