Ugh. That is so oppressive! But believe it or not, up until recently, this is pretty much what I thought. Maybe I didn’t think it out loud. Maybe I didn’t think it about other people. But deep in my gut, this is what I felt about my own walk with God. A constant nagging, torturous guilt about how badly I have failed over and over again. A continual mental and spiritual battle raged deep in my spirit. No matter how much I loved God, no matter how much I loved other people, and no matter how much I tried to rely on God’s grace, I felt like I was a big, fat failure. Literally.
I sat in a prison service tonight looking over a sea of sinful men. Rapists. Murderers. Pedophiles. Thieves. Drug dealers. Gang members. And as I sat and looked at them I was overwhelmed with God’s grace that he has given. Such terrible things had happened at the hands of the men in that room and yet still, God took away the labels that society has placed on them and gave them new names. In God’s eyes, they are no longer murderers, they are his adopted children. They are no longer rapists, they are heirs to the throne. They are no longer thieves, they are men that he desires to give an abundant life to. I had no problem accepting that these men were capable of receiving His gift, but I couldn’t bring myself to accept that God accepted ME despite my failures.
Can a lack of self-control keep you out of heaven? Sure it can. Is gluttony a sin? Sodom was destroyed because of it. But there is this idea out there that we fall in and out of salvation minute by minute depending on whether or not we have outstanding, unrepentant sin. For almost my whole life, I believed that I could live spotlessly but then stub my toe and swear and if I happened to fall down dead at that very moment, I’d go straight to hell. Or maybe more accurately when it comes to my struggle, I could make months of good effort and honest progress when it came to not using food as an idol, but one moment of overindulgence and I had failed God and was in an unsaved spiritual state. It’s a belief that is disheartening because the expectations are unattainable.
Imagine for a minute that you are walking down a path towards Heaven with Jesus leading the way. On each side of this path are wolves, rocky terrain, and traps that are set to ensnare you. As you travel the path, you occasionally run across sections that are uneven and narrow. When you approach and cross through these sections of the path you can either 1. Continue on the path of following Jesus even if you fall, never taking your eyes off of him despite your stumbles or 2. Choose to go off the path, leave Jesus altogether, and try to make it on your own. Do you see how dramatically different those two choices are? I think God sees the difference too.
I can confidently say that I am on the first path. Sometimes I lose control. Sometimes I overindulge my flesh. Sometimes I sin. But I know that in my heart, I am continually making my best effort to stay right behind Jesus. I want him to fight the wolves away ahead of me. I trust that he will guide me over the rocky terrain if I trust him, and I have full faith that he knows how to thwart the traps of the enemy. I am putting my trust in him and in return he just asks me to not give up and give him my best. He doesn’t tell me I have to perfect, he knows that I can’t be. He’s taken care of that for me.
So should we continue in sin so that grace my abound? Certainly not! (Romans 6:1) I need to work on developing self-control…it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. I need to practice denying my flesh. I need to care for my body that God gave me. We should absolutely try to live a life that is free from sin. But when we fall on our faces (and we all will), Jesus is still ahead of us making our case before the Father.
“My dear children, I am writing this to you so that you will not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate who pleads our case before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who is truly righteous. He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.” 1 John 2:1-2
Tonight I can go to bed knowing that despite my own miserable failures in the past, I still have a confident hope. I know that even if my footing doesn’t seem sure all of the time or if Jesus seems to be further away than he was a while ago, I am still moving forward towards him and towards Heaven. And as long as I am doing that, it’s all good.