GUILT IN SIN

Posted 12/3/07

I’ve received quite a lot of reaction to this blog over the past month. Most of it, by far, is in response to those entries I dismissively refer to as ‘confessional angst’. It is in my acknowledgement of sin and the struggle to avoid it that I most seem to strike a familiar chord. Well on this occasion, rather than indulge my readers (they exist!), I am going to try and examine why such a preference may exist; it would seem the feeling of failure in our Christian lives is endemic and worst when not shared.

The hypothesis is this – we are told that the Christian experience should be characterized by joy. We are enlightened, forgiven, saved for all time and designed for worship so why not? David writes that God ‘put gladness in my heart’ (Psalms 4:7) whilst the Thessalonians, even in affliction, received the Word with ‘joy of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Thess 1:6). Most famously, Isaiah 55:12 states that ‘You shall go forth in joy’. However, I would observe that, for many, their walk with God is more like Lamentations than Psalms. So many people summarise their spiritual situation along the lines of ‘I am so far from where I should be with God. I’m not making the progress I should be – I’m not behaving in the right way’. This is not mere lip-service. I am only too aware that the daily burden of guilt can be a sickening daily reality – first thought in the morning and last at night. What’s more, this state of affairs is logical. Those who aren’t saved have little reason to rue their everyday sins, nor to even recognize them. Christians, on the other hand, are only too aware of their sin, yet seem powerless to prevent it. Put in the terms of a human relationship, guilt would seem unavoidably constant were we to repeatedly go against the wishes of our loved ones whilst they looked on, causing them heartbreak on each occasion. We then, walk around shame-faced by our pathetic failures to honour God at work and in our relationships. If we know he’s the most important thing, then why don’t we honour Him all the time?

I am very susceptible to this constant self-analysis. Ups and downs are the way I work – and I have always been in thrall to the idea that ‘I’ve done well this week’ or otherwise (usually otherwise). However, this can easily equate to a points system – a faith measured by deeds as we drum up negative scores for an excess of alcohol or a lustful fantasy pursued, whilst seeking to make it up by the double-length Bible study or a Church invite to a colleague. In reality, such thinking runs contrary to the idea of one of my last blog entries – that which considered the value of sound doctrine over the vagaries of spiritual experience. It was my wife who pointed this out to me last Thursday, during our scheduled weekly Bible study (a valuable new initiative that I hope lasts the course). I was moaning on about how I was feeling low and unsuccessful as a Christian that week. She simply pointed out that if, as I love to point out, my Christian reawakening has been due to understanding of the Scriptures rather than by the addictive buzz of a ‘spiritual high’, then my attitude towards God should be governed by that same constancy that characterizes God’s word. Just as the truths by which I am saved are unchanging, so should be the joy within me at such salvation. We are not, after all, a religion seeking heaven by deeds. Were we not doomed to fall short every time, then Jesus wouldn’t have had to die for us in the first place.

But to add balance… We should hate sin – and hate it in ourselves. Repentance requires a degree of sorrow. We can’t shrug our shoulders at our sin and absolve ourselves of responsibility. But there is a difference between sorrow and feeling sorry for ourselves. Our behaviour is the greatest act of witness and the greatest evidence of Christ’s work in us to the world. But investing too much in our own power to ‘be good’ is an act of futility. We’re not inherently good so we might as well get used to it. Our time is better spent addressing the state of our hearts. Sinful acts are a symptom of inner rebellion, and to try and clean up our behaviour alone is like trying to cure a cold by blowing our nose – a short term fix and essentially futile. The truth is that it’s all about which we feed and know best – our spiritual self or our worldly self, both present and conflicting within our hearts. If we invest time, thought and effort into our relationship with God rather than into our relationship with the world, then godly behaviour will naturally follow, just as will that elusive joy. Similarly, if we devote ourselves entirely to a godless culture, then we will reflect the fact in the people we are. Spending regular time with God’s word and seeking him out won’t stop us from messing it up (‘All have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God’ – Romans 3:23), but perhaps we won’t mess it up all the time! And even if feel we do, well the equation with God is just the same as it was the week before.

Given an opportunity, I may next write an entry about the stag weekend I just spent in Dublin with an entirely non-Christian group. If so, I really hope others continue to draw encouragement from the fact that someone else is also battling with those often unspoken issues we all face – how to spend 14 hours in a pub and not end up wrecked or how best to extricate ourselves from the strip club scenario without looking like a killjoy (don’t worry, I won that battle!). But I also hope that, for the rest of the time, people don’t give themselves too hard a time for the fact they too find the Christian journey difficult, and that they too have to utilize God’s willing offer of forgiveness on a daily basis. We’re all in the same boat!!

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