It was only when I reached my forties that I began to truly appreciate the sheer folly of my youth, including my early years as a believer. But now I’m in my sixties I look back on those same years with not merely shame, but abject horror at just how raw, spiritually immature and casual about unrepentant sin in my life I was. Such, I have to say, is my less than glowing assessment of my formative years as a follower of Jesus.
But I am not discouraged! Indeed, I am actually somewhat pleased by this! After all, Jesus came precisely to save helpless sinners such as I then was, and the mere fact that I looked back on myself with such honesty in the way I did 20 years ago, along with the way I now view those same years, tells me that I have grown and matured in the Lord at least in some measure over the intervening years. Not that I am no longer horrified by my sin though for the older I get the more aware I become of it’s deceptiveness, it’s sheer ability to parade itself as something other than the evil it is! But it is nevertheless a clear witness to the measure of God’s grace in me that, however spiritually dull and prone to self-blindness and deception I am, I have nonetheless grown increasingly aware of my constant need of repentance, humility before God and man, and forgiveness. Such is undoubtedly an indication of a growing maturity in the Lord.
What I am discouraged about though is that so many believers, and I have known an awful lot through the years, decidedly don’t share a similar assessment of themselves. Maybe I’m just more sinful than they are, and a poorer-than-average example of what a follower of Jesus ought to be like; but I rather doubt it. No, the problem isn’t that I’m alarmingly mega-sinful in some way that others are not, but rather that so many believers are fundamentally dishonest in their assessment of themselves and just live in denial of how sinful they actually are!
In the years I’ve followed the Lord I’ve become aware of certain underlying principles which comprise the real evidence of whether or not someone is truly growing in the Lord, or merely going through the outward motions. Whether they have a genuine ongoing actual personal closeness to Him, or merely an outward form of godliness. And one of those principles is: What do they do with their sin? What do they do when sin in their lives is revealed? And in particular, what do they do with the third parties the Lord so often uses, in whatever way, as part of that process? Do they come clean and repent? Or do they just stage a cover up, deny everything and in their minds discredit – and, if possible, discredit in the minds of others – any who are party to that sin being revealed in their lives and brought to the light?
If we are not being honest about our sin and failure before the Lord then it is difficult to see how we are being honest and upright regarding anything else that particularly matters. It’s a bit like those politicians who get caught cheating on their wives but assure us that we can still trust them when it comes to stuff like policy, governing and spending our hard earned taxes! (Trust me! I’m a politician!)
So hey, if you live your Christian life hanging on to the Lord for dear life because you dare not trust yourself but for one minute to live in your own strength, then join the club! It’s called Christian fellowship! But if you don’t really think you’re overly sinful, and that you’re doing pretty well in your discipleship, and you aren’t having to struggle daily against stuff like pride, covetousness, selfishness – it’s what the Bible calls ‘crucifying the flesh’ – then please, keep your distance. Because all you will do is get in the way of those who are more honest in the Lord than you are, and be a hindrance to those who do want to grow in godliness on their way to Heaven, and not just get there having pursued a selfish worldly life down here. Those believers who are more honest than you will, of course, sweat blood and shed tears in their attempts to love you and to serve you, and to bring you to a better place, but if you just deny the extent of your sinfulness and resist laying your life down on the altar of selflessness all the time, then what more can they do?
Nothing brings greater joy to the Father than seeing repentance in the lives of those He has created. Therefore, knowing that we are so truly known of Him precisely in all our sinfulness and depravity, yet so truly and deeply loved nonetheless, then what greater joy can there be than a life lived not having to hide from Him any more, and in simple open and honest acknowledgement of how evil we are? And I know that many Christians would resist using the word ‘evil’ of themselves; indeed, would see it as being overly negative – damaging to their mental well-being even – yet Jesus clearly said, “If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…” (Matthew 7:11)
There is nothing negative about being honest with a doctor about symptoms that suggest a disease he can provide a cure for. And the cure for our sinfulness, for the deceit and depravity of our hearts, is the Lord Jesus, who gave His life precisely that we might be forgiven and cleansed. But growing in that truth and knowing the power of the Holy Spirit bringing it progressively to fruition within us down the years begins, and continues, with us being honest about how sinful and needy we actually are.
When I was that young man who was, quite genuinely, seeking to follow the Lord, I came across a Christian book with the title ‘Repentance, the Joy-Filled Life’. It terrified me! But only because I hadn’t come to the place of being able to just be honest about sin. I was yet insecure in the Lord’s love for me and feared it to be contingent upon good performance and on me not sinning very much. Not much joy in that, believe me! But discovering, as I eventually did more and more, that the Lord wanted me to be honest because He loved me so greatly, and not because He didn’t love me very much because I was so bad, changed everything. But now repentance, though still painful to my pride and the lingering self-righteousness that characterises all of us, is sheer relief and my very life-line to the One who has saved me. Like the kissing and making up of lovers who have spoiled their love as the result of whatever came between them – though of course it is never the Lord who causes the wrong – it is the joy of relationship renewed and discipleship restored. I even enjoy Star Trek is all the more because of such repentance, to say nothing of having an even greater life with Belinda and Bethany. After all, what fun is there to be had living with the constant gnawing of a bad conscience in denial of whatever the Holy Spirit is convicting you of?
King David prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24)
Might such be true of ourselves also!