Quit Focusing on Your Sin
MAY 4, 2022
Back in February, on our weekly talk show during Black History Month, we discussed race and racism.
Race was an appropriate subject then, and it still is (but that’s not the subject of this letter). On the show, George Bingham commented that racism was a horrible sin and genuine repentance needed to be a part of the church’s witness, “but it’s not the only sin.” I admitted that there was a time when I honestly thought that my only sin was smoking my pipe and, if I could just stop smoking, I would be close to perfect. God laughed at me then. He really did.
One of the problems with focusing on particular sins is that we’re in danger of missing all the other ones.
Jack Miller was right when he famously said, “You’re a lot worse than you think you are,” just as he was right when he said, “God’s grace is a lot bigger than you think it is.” You don’t get the second without getting the first. And there is a direct correlation between how deeply you get the first and how free you become with the second. So that you know, getting that first statement isn’t as easy as you might think. It’s not as easy (or as hard) as quitting smoking. It may include the sins with which we struggle, but the truth is that we don’t know the half of it.
Christians who sin (and that’s all of us) hardly ever name our most dangerous sins because, frankly, we don’t know what they are. Instead, we confess, repent of, and work hard at getting rid of, the public, easily-defined and, as it were, safe sins. If we work hard enough, we can get a modicum of victory over those sins. I can become less angry using anger management techniques, deal with my lust sometimes by reading Scripture verses, ameliorate my pride by reading critical letters, and stop smoking with Nicorette gum. The problem is that when I get a temporary victory, I think I’m done. Not even close.
A dear friend emailed me this morning: “I know I’m doing things the Bible says we should do, and the one thing I’ve learned is that I know my heart less and less. I really find myself plagued with questions about my motivation. Why do I do the right things I do is a question I ask more than why do I do the bad things I do. I hope that didn’t sound as crazy as it did when I typed it.” What he wrote wasn’t crazy. It was wise. When Isaiah wrote that “our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Isaiah 64:6), he was saying in effect that all of our goodness, purity, and obedience are often rooted in self-interest, a desire for approval, and as a cover for self-righteousness.
C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity: “The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and backbiting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.”
Almost all legalism and self-righteousness have their root in this phenomenon. It’s what Jesus meant when he asked, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). It’s not that we’re intentional hypocrites. It’s just that we really don’t see the log. We’ve covered it up with platitudes and religious nonsense. But it’s not just with believers; it’s a human trait. There is no other way to understand the blatant hypocrisy of politicians and media talking-heads. They, too, don’t understand or see their own hypocrisy. There is incredible blindness to the reality that we are a lot worse than we think we are.
I think the Psalmist understood in Psalm 139. He knew his sins. (Good heavens! He was writing Scripture.) On the other hand, once he had confessed every known sin (and he does that often), the Psalmist knew that there was more, something wasn’t right, and he had only scratched the surface: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! / Try me and know my thoughts! / And see if there be any grievous way in me, / and lead me in the way everlasting! (vv. 23-24).
There is an old story about a group of nuns who wanted to buy beer but were afraid the clerk would be shocked by their purchase. The Mother Superior said she would take care of it. As she placed the six-pack of beer on the counter, she said, “Just in case you wondered, we use beer as shampoo.” The clerk reached under the counter, brought out a package of pretzels, and put it in the bag with the beer, then winked and said, “The curlers are on the house.”
That’s kind of a metaphor. We hide our sins (often unaware that we’re even doing it) and the Holy Spirit gives us, as it were, curlers . . . gentle reminders that we really are a lot worse than we think we are.
Well, this is a fun letter. I already struggle with guilt, and you’re not helping much.
I am helping. I’m showing you the road to freedom and joy. Let’s get to that part.
One of the reasons most of us (me included) don’t experience the freedom and joy Jesus promised is because we’re so focused on our sin that there is hardly any time left to focus on God’s absolute and unconditional forgiveness of our known and unknown sins. That’s a religious attitude, and it will kill us if we don’t name it and repent.
Do you remember Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13? When Jesus got around to Peter, Peter said, “It will be a cold day in a hot place before I let you wash my feet!” (Rough translation.) Jesus responded, not unkindly, that if he didn’t wash Peter’s feet, Peter would have “no share with me” (vs. 8). Then Peter threw up his hands and said, “All right, already! Give me a bath.” (Another rough translation.)
At that moment, Peter realized he was a lot “dirtier” than he thought he was. The events that followed (his denial of Jesus, cowardice, and failure) would affirm that truth. That lends new meaning to Jesus’ instructions to Mary Magdalene and his mother, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee” (Mark 16:7). Jesus geared his instructions to Peter in particular because Peter now knew the truth about the bad news (the depth of his sin), and it would destroy him if he didn’t also know the truth that he was totally forgiven, loved, and valued beyond his dreams.
When Lincoln was asked what he planned to do with the South after the Civil War, he replied, “I will treat them as if they never left.” God says pretty much the same thing.
I’m not suggesting that you do more self-examination to discover more about which to be guilty. Making lists of our sins, accountability groups, and forced public confession may be good for some people (I’m not even sure of that), but it drives me nuts. Some of you may need to do that. Martin Luther was often irritated by one of his self-righteous colleagues at Wittenberg and once, with great irritation, said to him, “Why don’t you just go out and sin, so you have something about which to repent?” But for most of us, we need to recognize that all our sins are forgiven—the ones about which we’re aware and the other ones, the hidden, even deeper and more destructive, sins that God chooses to reveal. It’s an attitude of knowing that we’re covered, forgiven, and free no matter how deep and painful our sin is. That doesn’t give us more guilt. Instead, it’s an open invitation to “know thyself” and to do it without fear or dread.
That’s why we can pray the words of Psalm 139. A forgiven sinner says to Satan, the accuser of God’s people, “Bring it on! I’m free, and Jesus will handle any accusation. So there!”
Guilt has only one purpose for believers—to send us to Jesus, where we’re always welcomed, always loved, and sometimes even changed. Just don’t make change the main purpose of running to him. It’s not about your changing; it’s about his loving you.
I read the other day about a large police force that arrested a 93-year-old woman who hadn’t committed any crime. Being arrested was on her bucket list, and her granddaughter asked the police if they would arrest her for her birthday. The granddaughter tweeted the police afterward, “Thank you for arresting my Gran Josie today. She’s 93, and her health is failing, and she always wanted to be arrested for something before it’s too late. She has a heart of gold and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Thank you for granting her wish.”
I’ve often said that you can stand hell if you know you’re going to get out. That’s true. But let me tell you something else that is also true. You can stand jail if you know that, with Josie, you have an unlimited stack of “Get Out of Jail Free” cards. It makes one free to visit jail as often as necessary and to do it with joy.
By the way, don’t write me letters about quitting smoking. Many people far more spiritual than you are have tried and failed. But who knows? Maybe I will, but if I do, I’ll have to face the fact of my arrogance in what I just wrote. That would be worse than the pipe. Jesus would forgive me of both.
He asked me to tell you.