“No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home, but the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up. It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us: it is the very sign of His presence.”
– C. S. Lewis –
I feel like a child who forgets she’s had a bath.
I rub my hands together, still mentally covered in the mud’s slime and the sand’s grit.
One film called “The Robe” depicts the journey to faith made by the centurion who crucified Jesus. At first, his guilt haunts him. It nearly drives him mad. In moments of frenzy, he rubs his hand frantically, trying to get the long-erased stain of Jesus’ blood off his fingers.
I feel like that centurion, haunted by stains others have forgotten or never saw at all.
Chased down by guilt that was forgiven in an instant. If only I could stop my flailing long enough to actually see what Jesus has done.
In those stomach-twisting moments, I am Simon Peter, pleading for my head and my hands to be washed as well as my feet (John 13:9). All of me feels desecrated.
Like C.S. Lewis, I feel the “despair of overcoming chronic temptations,” a Fatal slipping back into the wallow.
Relief is foreign, in those moments. They stretch on and on, a desert where refreshing can be seen just over the next dune, only to vanish when weary feet stumble up to the mirage.
Bogged in such a moment, I vacillate between a frantic, gasping desire for the old peace and a slithering despondency that by trying harder, working up more memories of things to repent of, I will only slip farther into the pit, the steep-sided slough.
I struggle for balance, grasping one moment at a shining thread of truth, seen through the fog like light seeping under a closed door. The next moment, I miss the strand and plummet farther into a ceaseless reel of my failures. I play them over and over to myself, each bout ending with a tighter feeling in my chest before I once again shrug off the feeling.
I talk myself into guilt, then try to convince myself that I am innocent. I lay awake conjuring up memories. Did I say that in a cutting way? Should I apologize to that person? What about that one time years ago when I did that? Maybe I should try to ask that person’s forgiveness. Oh dear. I think my annoyance at someone crossed my face. Maybe I should say I’m sorry?
And then the other side battles back. “So and so” probably didn’t think anything of your tone. They didn’t seem offended. Good grief! That was years ago–and your mom said not to worry about it, that it was fine. No, I don’t think you showed your annoyance. Snap out of it. It’s not a big deal. Just ask God to help you and get on with living! Yes, repent if you’ve really offended someone. But you’re making yourself miserable over a basket full of nothing!
But by the time these two pieces of myself have battled, the spirit of pseudo-spirituality has worn me thin and praying seems distasteful. I edge into sleep with only a few obligatory lines murmured, afraid that at His feet too I will be rejected. If I can’t even reason myself out of the hole, if I can’t find an end to my own fault-finding–why on earth should I expect to be clear of guilt standing before a Holy God?
There is, undoubtedly, a vital, soul-cleansing place for repentance in the life of the Christian. Just as much–or more–danger lies in failing to repent as there is in hypersensitivity. Failing to see the deadly ugliness of sin is an opposite “ditch” that we just as often fall into.
From time to time, there will be an awakening. We children will look down and “come to ourselves.” We will realize that the clothes that were just laundered are now mud-caked and full of rotten stench. We are Prodigals, seeing where our pleasure hunt has led us at last. Then, it is good to see the sewer for what it is. It is good to smell it for what it is–a place of decay, disease, death, and dissatisfaction. There, our eyes finally open and we see how very tattered we have become.
This itself is a good thing, even “the sign of His presence.” Only opened eyes can draw the contrast between blindness and true light. Only opened ears can begin to hear the difference between the world’s unsettling clash and the joyous harmonies of glory. Only the children that notice the dirt can continue to fight against the sins that cause it.
What is vital is that we believe.
That is the problem, I discovered.
As I mulled over my recent sin-struggle, I wondered if there could be some connection between the far-apart symptoms of self-satisfied unrepentance and self-destroying oversensitivity.
Lying on my bed in the dark, I finally saw. Thank God, I saw.
Saw that my problem has been, all along, that I am not really believing God. That whether hard-hearted or too anxious, the disease is unbelief in what God says He will do. One person does not believe God actually abhors sin and will punish it; the other does not believe in His breathtaking promise to forgive.
Overscrutinizing my expressions, replaying memories of my failures that no one else recalls, scrutinizing every moment for the tiniest flaw for which I need to grovel–in these I doubt Christ’s power.
Yes, I need to repent.
But once I have repented, I am free.
The Bible declares forgiveness in such simple, clear terms. If we confess our sins, the faithful and just Savior will forgive (1 John 1:9). There are no added conditions, no fine print that to our confessions must be added a certain measure of despondency, a certain number of penances, and a time-out period.
Amy Carmichael wrote,
“If I cast up a confessed, repented, and forsaken sin against another, and allow my remembrance of that sin to colour my thinking and feed my suspicions, then I know nothing of Calvary love.”
Though she speaks of having unforgiveness toward another person, this same truth applies to ourselves. We sin. We fly to the throne. Through tears, we cast it away into the corner and plead forgiveness from the One who died that we could be reconciled. Then, we run off before we hear the forgiveness announced. We hurry back to our places and begin to “cast up a confessed, repented, and forsaken sin” against ourselves, words flagellating the bare, raw backs of our souls as much as ever did a monk’s penance whip.
“Forgiven!” He shouts it from the heavens, but we are so transfixed in repeating over and again our own self-declared guilt sentence that our ears do not hear his voice. It is amazing how easily God’s clear proclamations can be drowned out by our own muttering.
For me, it took until Communion Day to finally receive the message of His pardon. My soul felt whipped into shreds, my desire for Him scarred by imaginings that He would be even more stern with me than I had been with myself. I could only beg His forgiveness for not loving Him more. But sitting there, about to receive the bread, I still felt no pardon.
But I believed. I had been reading The Screwtape Letters and read this devilish advice: ” Teach [Christians] to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling.” So I realized that the battle was one of faith. I didn’t have to feel some great Heavenly wave wash over me. I just had to cling to Jesus’ blood and righteousness–like Harriet Tubman’s constant prayer in her work to free slaves: “Lord, I’m going to hold steady on to you and You’ve got to see me through.”
There are two ‘courts’ we must deal with: the court of God in Heaven and the court of conscience in our souls. When we first trust in Christ for salvation, God’s court is forever satisfied. Never again will a charge of guilt be brought against us in Heaven. Our consciences, however, are continually pronouncing us guilty. That is the function of conscience. Therefore, we must by faith bring the verdict of conscience into line with the verdict of Heaven. We do this by agreeing with our conscience about our guilt, but then reminding it that our guilt has already been borne by Christ.
– Jerry Bridges, emphasis mine –
And, as it so often happens, when I believed, He granted me more than I could have asked.
As I trusted, sitting there holding a small piece of cracker, a picture formed in my mind.
I could almost see a child, a little girl, clothed in a white dress that had been spattered with mud and ripped at the knees, knocking timidly at a cottage door. I knew the child was me.
And I could feel the thrum of the guilty little heart, after her forbidden excursion.
But then the Father threw open the door. The little girl ran into His arms. Both eyes were full of tears–the girl’s of penitence, the Father’s of joy.
It took my breath away. It was no vision. I have no spiritual illusions that it was anything more than a God-granted thought.
But it was as if I were in the arms of my Abba Father in that instant. All the Kingly declarations of forgiveness, the celestial shouts –these, by my own fault, I could not hear. In that moment though, when in my mind I was the little girl in her Father’s arms, I could hear the still, small whisper. “Forgiven, my child. Forgiven.”
“There is no thirst of the soul so consuming as the desire for pardon. The sense of its bestowal is the starting-point of all goodness. It comes bringing with it, if not the freshness of innocence, yet a glow of inspiration that nerves feeble hands for hard tasks, a fire of hope that lights anew the old high ideal, so that it stands before the eye in clear relief, beckoning to make it out on its own.”
– Charles H. Brent –
The old joy began to return, the lightness of freedom (Galatians 5:1).
When I received that hug from God, I knew the Prodigal was home.
Behold, what manner of love is this, that Christ should be arraigned and we adorned, that the curse should be laid on His head and the crown set on ours.
– Thomas Watson –