An Unwanted — But Much Needed — Message

[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.”
Ouch!

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!

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12 thoughts on “An Unwanted — But Much Needed — Message

  1. Thanks for the reminder to not make excuses for our sin.

    I am still trying to process the quote from Lovejoy, “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.”

    None of us fully process our past in a perfectly healthy way and I know from experience that depression and anxiety can come from this. Not to mention those who have been victims of trauma or other tragedy that cause bouts of depression. I guess I would need to read the book in its entirety to understand his intent of such a broad statement regarding the effects and cause of depression.

    Furthermore, to say “depression is a gift from God” is a reach for me. I believe in the Sovereignty of God and that He works all things for His eternal purpose, but I need a little more Biblical proof to warrant a statement like that. Help me out here KC… Where can I find it Biblically that depression is a God ordained gift?

    So would it be safe to say that schizophrenia is a gift from God, or anorexia or bulimia? How about chronic pain or heart disease? I guess I personally don’t need to see depression as a ‘gift’ to understand it has a divine purpose. The sin of Judas had a divine purpose but I am certain he wouldn’t tell you that his greed was a gift from God.

    I have found in my life that depression is generally a result of sin. Sin done by me or against me. Never have I seen depression as a gift. Yes, it has pointed me to Christ and it has caused me to look at many of the ways I deal with my past, but just because it has a divine purpose doesn’t mean it can or should be defined as a gift.

    What are your thoughts?

    Keith

    • Hey, Keith —
      Let me begin by saying that you have a very good point here. And it is well-taken.
      Still, I don’t think there is really an argument here. I (think I) totally understand what you’re saying. And I don’t think it’s really at odds with the stuff I’ve said or that is in Gary’s book. I don’t recall whether Gary actually uses the word “gift” to describe depression, though I believe Scott cautiously used it of stress in his message. (If you haven’t heard Scott’s message yet, I would encourage you to check it out on SMBC’s website.)
      The basic idea here is that anything that points us to Christ and causes us to look at the ways we look at our past (your words) can — at least at some level — be seen as a gift. If you don’t like the word “gift” being used in such a way, that’s fine with me. Set it aside. The point, by whatever terms, remains.
      But to press it a bit further, I do consider what our Lord went through for us to be a great gift. Of course, I mean that it is a gift to us, not necessarily to Him. But we do know something of His own attitude toward His passionate suffering. And even if He did not consider it a “gift,” He does seem to be very glad for the experience and its purposes and results (e.g. Hebrews 12:2).
      Yet the Scripture tells me that pains of Gethsemane and Golgotha are not merely there to atone for my sin, but are there also for me to share in. And I find that this fellowship with the suffering of my Lord happens best as I go through the pains of my own little life. The great goal for me is to KNOW Him and the power of resurrection and the fellowship of His suffering. The anguish of adversity, whether it be from stress, depression, or whatever, is the school where I learn of Christ — where I come to know Him. The book of Hebrews tells us that God is working to “perfect” us and to “bring [us] to glory.” And it is clear that that process involves our following the path of the Lord Jesus, who Himself was perfected as the “Pioneer of salvation through sufferings” (Heb. 2:10).
      Now, I have to admit that that can sound very trite when it comes from someone who has not or is not currently suffering great adversity. But the ability to have a right theological understanding of the role of adversity in our stories does not entail either a shallow down-playing of of its awfulness or a masochistic eagerness to suffer. It is in my best moments that I am able to see adversity as a “gift.” When I am in the throes of it, I am not often wont to recognize it as such. And for that reason, I would want to be careful and sensitive about using such language while loving a friend through their troubles. I would not say, “Hey, buck up, little camper! Put a smile on! This is a gift from God!” That, I think, would be unbiblical.
      Perhaps that helps clarify?…
      Thanks for the push on this, Keith!

  2. It is reassuring that the light of God is beaming in Scott’s sermon, sounds like our own humble Ray Davis’s sermons down here. It would very useful for all to have God’s servant Scott there on a more regular basis to be sure. We often forget about our own ugly sin, and leave confession to our Lord, humble loving resolution with our brother undone. Much more to share, but must move on to some unfinished business for now. May the Lord transform us with this blog dialogue.

  3. KC,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I know your heart and what your intent was in the original post so I hope no offense was taken by my comment. Yes, I agree and understand that we share in the suffering of Christ, it is threaded throughout the entire Bible. I am still trying to process it as a gift however. I think maybe one day I will look back at the difficulties God has allowed to occur in my life from early childhood until now and just possibly be able to see them as a gift… but for know I understand them as a tool in which He is carving and shaping me into the sculpture of His choosing.

    Keith

    • No offense taken at all, Keith. Vibrant and stimulating discussion of this sort is one of the main reasons I began my blog in the first place. Please do not hesitate to do more of it in the future.
      BTW, I visited your blog recently and took the survey. 🙂
      Shalom!

  4. Hey KC,

    That was a far better summary then I could have written myself. You really got it, to the point of expanding the application. As the Lord uses this to transform your life, I am excited to think of how many you will influence in your teaching, preaching, and writing ministry. I honestly believe that this is why so many Christians get stalled in their personal growth and maturity. Preach it brother!
    Scott

    • Thank you, Scott!
      I cannot tell you how much it means to me to receive this stamp of approval from you.
      Your message from I John 1 stands out as one of the most piercingly meaningful messages I have ever heard.
      Of course, there is a big difference between ‘getting’ a message like this and being gotten by it. I do want to know the transformational power of it — which is why I chose to process it here on TLW. As an educator, I know the power of having a student ‘render it back’ in his/her own words. Plus, putting it here affords me and those who visit here the further opportunity to wrangle with it together.
      Once again, thank you!
      Shalom!

  5. Cub,

    Sounds very simillar to some of our conversations lately. Thanks for posting this. I am guilty of wanting to be understood or wanting my bothers and sisters to understand what they are asking me to forgive. An enternal battle for me. I apreciate the extra light that was shed on the subject.

    Pete

    • Thank you, my good man!
      As I said in the post, this was not a very comfortable message for me, but one I really needed to hear. That’s the best kind of preaching! Very prophetic!
      Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be understood. It is not as though the Lord just wants us to seek His forgiveness, but never His understanding. We have every reason to rest in the fact that He has already gone the distance to understand us, to walk more than a few miles in our shoes (Hebrews 4:15). In fact, God understands us better than we understand ourselves (I John 3:20).
      But Scott’s point, I think, is that when we put our desire to be understood ahead of our need to be forgiven, something happens that ironically moves us away from God, others, and our truest selves. What claims to be a hunger to be understood turns out to be one of the most insidious vehicles of alienation.
      Thanks for the opportunity to think it through again!
      Love ya, Bro!
      YHWH bless you and keep you!

  6. Dear KC,

    Thanks for alerting me to your blog…I’ve been reading some of your entries, and they are very good..many insights and provocative thoughts. I haven’t had a chance to hear Scott’s message yet (I just got back from several weeks out of town), but I plan to as soon as possible. Nevertheless, from Scott’s comment, you apparently summarized the essence of it very well. Scott makes an excellent point about stress exposing our sin, not causing it, and that our aim must be confession, not explanation. You rightly applied that thought to what I wrote in “Light on the Fringe”…that the message of God’s grace (a gift that provides something we don’t deserve) and mercy (a gift that enables us to avoid something we do deserve) is found even in the way we are emotionally constructed, with alarm systems that warn us to direct our attention to things that need intervention and change in order to function optimally.
    I fully understand the difficulty Keith expressed in conceptualizing something as devastating as depression as having a positive purpose. That’s why I liken it to the experience of pain, which everyone will agree, is something we always wish to avoid if possible (indeed, there is a multi-billion industry designed specifically to blunt our experience of it). Yet, pain is probably the most valuable sensory warning system that we have, despite (no, because of) the fact that the great discomfort it produces virtually guarantees we cannot ignore the problem giving rise to it. If our depression arises from issues involving sin, so much more the power of an alarm system to galvanize our need for spiritual renewal. In the end, there is evidence of design everywhere we look, physically, psychologically, or spiritually, and usually they are intricately intertwined so that what happens in one sphere greatly affects another.
    BTW, I greatly enjoyed your piece on Cain. When you spoke of Cain’s true mindset, I couldn’t help but think of the life of the urbane philosopher and pioneer psychologist, William James, the father of classical pragmatism, who believed in the power of “religious experience” (He actually wrote a seminal book about it, called “The Varieties of Religious Experience”), but who could never bring himself to accept divine authority outside of some kind of existential spiritual reality itself. Most likely, his highly religious, but sternly autocratic (and highly controlling) father, whom he intellectually resisted, had something to do with that. Still, he was in frequent contact with genuine Christians (and even drew on their writings, albeit as phenomenological experience) all the while rejecting the theological underpinning of their experience. Essentially, to him, God, if He existed at all, presided in “feelings” of a “spiritual” nature. It seems to me, he was the embodiment of the Cain mentality: Define goodness on your own terms, and content yourself with the self-righteous idea that you live a commendable life, as anyone with even the slightest vestige of intellectual sophistication would understand. Little matter what God actually says; it’s all in how well you think you contribute to life and see the fruits of your labor. Basically, goodness resides in man’s action, not God’s.
    KC, you write (and speak) very cogently, especially, in biblical terms, about matters of the soul. You have numerous good books in you…when are you going to start writing them?

    Your brother in Christ, Gary

    • Thanks for the visit to TLW, Gary!
      I am glad to find out I wasn’t too far off the mark in making connections between Scott’s message and yours.
      As I have said before, when I finish your book, I will have some questions for you. I have had to take it in bite-sized chunks over the past couple of months, but I am just about there.
      As I was preparing for the sermon I preached yesterday on I John3:11-24, I began to have some new thoughts attach to older ones about Cain and his sociological significance in the over all story of man.
      I am honored that you would take the time to visit this little blog-o-mine. I am even more honored to have you for a friend.
      Shalom!

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