[Visitors to TLW, this is a very long writing, but perhaps the most worthwhile one I’ve posted so far on this blog. Don’t shy away from it because of its length. :-)]
Scott was my counselor out at Boys’ Camp when was about nine years old. I still remember how, when I had fallen and injured my knee on a long hike, he carried me all the way back to camp on his back. We have not been super-close all through the years, but I have always looked to him as someone from whom I have learned and continue to learn Christ.
Scott and his wife have been missionaries in Austria for many years. But once in a while, they come back to the Portland area for one reason or another. And when they do, our congregation is usually treated to a sermon by Scott on some Sunday during their time here.
Not long ago (June 27th), I was blessed to have heard a sermon by this old friend who always challenges me and spurs me on to love and good works. (Click here to listen to the message.) As I wrote to him in the encouragement note that I slipped to him after the meeting, I am not sure when I have ever had such a love-hate relationship with a sermon. I think my spirit loved it, but my flesh did not appreciate it much at all. It was as though the Lord had brought him to town just to preach this message to me. I would certainly think so, if I did not hear several others say the same thing as we all stood around talking.
Scott’s message was on I John 1:5-10.
Early on in the message, he asked the question of who we would consider the godliest man or woman we know. Then he told his answer. He identified Bert, another of our church’s missionaries, as the godliest man he knows. Many years ago, Scott and his wife had the opportunity to live for the summer with Bert and Colleen in Peru, where they have served the Lord for decades. In that context, he saw that Bert lived every day at home as the same humble, Christ-like man that others saw in public. Yet Scott saw Bert agonize over his own sin. And he wondered why such a godly man would need to feel so bad about his little sins. Then he thought of it like golf. If someone like me, he said, hits the ball and shanks it off to the side, he is not really surprised to have missed. He might say, “Awww, shoot!” His disappointment is not that great, though, because he never really expected to do that well. But someone who has practiced and is, in fact, very good at golf, and barely misses the shot is very disappointed. He agonizes as he sees the replay in his mind of the ball swirling around the rim of the hole only to swoop back away onto the green. The closer we get to the heart of our Lord, the better we look? Not to ourselves. It’s an up-close look into a magnifying mirror with the kind of light that shows all of our imperfections.
This was a very good thing to chew on. But it was the main point of Scott’s message which really convicted me.
Centering on verse 9, he began to describe the differences between explanation and confession. When we exhibit bad behavior (i.e. sin), and we offer an explanation, we are doing something other than what John means to teach us in this verse. The Scripture does not say, after all, that if we explain our sin, or excuse our sin, or rationalize our sin, God will forgive us.
This is important. Explanation involves mitigating our guilt, and its goal is understanding—that is, our goal in explaining ourselves is to be understood. The example Scott used is the common, “I’m sorry I did X, but I’ve been under a lot of stress lately.”
Confession is very different from explanation. Confession merely owns up to guilt, and its goal is forgiveness. When we confess, we don’t seek to be understood, but to be forgiven.
This was a very hard truth for me to hear. It is easy for me to look back on all of my admissions of guilt in the past and see how I sought to be understood and then forgiven. It’s as if, before you forgive me, I need to reduce my debt by getting you to see that the sin was not entirely my fault. To be honest, I’m not sure I can think of a single situation in which this insidious form of spiritual self-defense (and consequent lack of total reliance on the mercy of the Lord) was not at work within me. Ironically, this has even been part of my reluctance to forgive certain others from my heart. Before I forgive them, I want it clearly understood just what they did—and therefore, just how magnanimous it is of me to forgive them. [Sighhhhhh…]
In talking about stress as an explanatory factor in our bad behavior, Scott made this bold assertion: Stress does not cause bad behavior, it reveals it. Stress helps to create the situation or the environment in which our sinfulness is exposed. For that reason, stress is a gift from God. Without it, we might not have our sins exposed to ourselves and to others around us in a way that will help us to deal with them. In fact, it is just this sort of reality check that we are trying to avoid when we seek to explain our sins, rather than confess them. If I can convincingly explain my sin to you, perhaps you will help me sweep my underlying sinfulness back under the rug where I think it belongs. That way I can get back to life as I know and like it. This is how many of us manage to go through decades of Christian life never really growing or dealing with the underlying sin issues which cripple us and make our faith so anemic.
Nevertheless, even if we fool ourselves and other humans into swallowing our explanations, God is not fooled. Scott offered an alternative reading of I John 1:9. He said, “If we explain (or excuse, or rationalize, or justify) our sin, He is faithful and just to let wallow in our sin.”
What Scott had to say about the “gift” of stress was very reminiscent of what I have been reading in a book by another friend. In Dr. Gary Lovejoy’s book, Light On the Fringe, he explains that depression is a gift from God. According to Gary, “depression exposes the ways we are thinking and behaving that are unhealthy for us. It dramatizes how far we have drifted in our faulty processing of the past. Depression is unpleasant because it is a purposefully uncomfortable alarm system designed to get our attention…. Looking at depression from this perspective gives us a way of seeing that it has, indeed, a divinely designed purpose.”
As with Scott’s sermon, I have found myself squirming under the light of Gary’s book too.
Of one thing I have no doubt: The Lord intends to use these things to renew my inner man. Sometimes the Surgeon’s knife feels more like the Lion’s claw, cutting away my dragon skin, but I would have it no other way.
To my friends, Scott and Gary, thank you for the faithful wounds!
I love you!