I’ve been thinking lately about how Christians deal with their sin. Someone once observed that we’re all like a drunk man trying to mount a horse: first he falls off one side, then he gets back on and falls off the other. That is never more true than when we think about how Christ-followers must deal with their sin.
It’s far too easy to fall into morose self-inspection, dredging up old offenses against God and wallowing in self-loathing and shame. That kind of response to my sin is nothing more than a toxic, legalistic self-hatred. It is not, to borrow from Paul, the “godly sorrow that leads to repentance” (2 Cor 7:10).
But we are just as prone to fall off the other side into the error of denial, resorting to that whole array of subtle lies we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better about our sin:
comparing ourselves with others
redefining our sin
speaking of our sin in euphemisms to make it sound less serious
A healthy, balanced approach to the presence of sin in our lives is a deep sorrow mixed with a joy that is deeper still. We know that deep sorrow because we know how our sin grieves the heart of God, but we must not live in that sorrow.
We can know a joy that is deeper still because we know that our standing with God can never be jeopardized by our sin. But we cannot get to that joy without going through the pain and humiliation of confessing our sin, dealing honestly with it before God.
Deep sorrow for our sin
The song puts it this way: “I’ll never know just what it cost to see my sins upon that cross.” The sorrow we feel when we violate God’s Law is real. Much as we’d like to think of our sin as a minor violation, a mere technicality, we know that it is entirely appropriate for us to feel great sorrow when we have sinned.
So what are we supposed to do with this great sorrow? And how do we avoid falling into that toxic self-condemnation?
John wrote his first epistle to show how believers can be assured that they are actually, finally saved from God’s wrath and are part of His family. He declares his purpose for his letter near the end: “I write these things to you so that you may know that you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God” (1 John 5:13). When sin stakes a claim in our lives, we are tempted to doubt our God’s continued affection for us; after all, why would God want to show kindly, faithful affection toward someone like me?
John opens his letter with a brief meditation on how we respond to the disturbing presence of sin in our lives. He surveys a couple of options that are still popular today:
To claim I am “have no sin,” to imagine that I am somehow beyond the reach of sin, is nothing more than self-deception (1 John 1:8).
To claim that I “have not sinned” (perhaps using the variety of denial techniques I’ve perfected over the years) is a simple lie (1 John 1:10).
Neither approach leads to assurance of salvation.
Instead, says John, we must confess (that is, agree with God about) our sin. We must lay aside our excuses and call our sin what it is: rebellion against God. Unless and until we agree with God about what we’ve done, we are left with those two bad options: self-loathing or self-justification.
John tells us that confession has a cleansing effect, reminding us that God has forgiven us in Christ and that He is “faithful and just to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We can never know the joy of that cleansing until we’ve done the hard work of confessing: calling our sin what it is, not making excuses, abandoning our carefully crafted excuses.
To confess our sin is a deeply sorrowful experience.
Deeper joy in what Christ has done for us
But it is not just sorrow that compels us when we deal with our sin, it is also joy.
A friend once told me something that took me a while to understand: “There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more, and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.”
Just let that sink in for a moment.
God already loves me so much it is impossible (even for Him!) to love me more. And even my best performance doesn’t move that needle; He doesn’t love me any more when my life sings with virtue and excellence. On my best days, He’s not more fond of me than when I am at my worst.
But God also loves me so much that it is impossible for Him to love me any less. My failure, no matter how abject and shameful, cannot unravel His lovingkindness, His faithful love toward me.
When Christ died for our sins, we were not yet born. On that day when Jesus died for my sins, all my sins were two thousand years in the future. He died to pay the debt for the totality of my sin, not just the offenses I committed up to the moment I trust Christ but all of the ways I would fail and offend the Almighty throughout my entire life, until I pass from this life to the next. From the moment I placed my confidence in him, my sins were paid in full – past, present, future, completely and finally.
When I bring my sin to God in confession, I’m not actually informing Him of anything. He knows not only all my secret sin but also all the ways I’ll fail Him throughout my entire lifetime! He knows all that because Christ has already paid for it all. No failure, no matter how shameful, is a surprise to Him. He’s already dealt with it in Christ’s death.
This deep joy comes in knowing that my sin and failure, even my repeated failure, is not a deal-breaker with God. I can rest in His unfailing love. I can rejoice in His faithful kindness to me, a sinner.
So the next time you’re dealing with sin in your life (and if you’re like me, that will be soon enough), don’t beat yourself up about your sin, and don’t comfort yourself with lies about your sin.
Instead, take that painful path of confession, moving through deep sorrow into that joy that is deeper still.