We all sin. Real, honest, hard-core moral rebellion. From addictions to pornography; from an uncontrolled temper, a critical spirit and uncontrolled tongue to greed and ambition; from cut-loose pride to adulterous thoughts and even actions.
We are sinners.
Present tense. Today. Multiple times.
I know I am. The stench of my sin, the shame of it, the demoralizing dynamic it plays in my life – particularly as a leader – are among the deepest of my spiritual challenges.
And I hate my sin.
But it’s very real.
One of the most honest statements I have ever read was from a French thinker named Joseph de Maistre who said, "I do not know what the heart of a rascal may be; I know what is in the heart of an honest man; it is horrible." Or as the nineteenth-century Christian leader Alexander Whyte said to a woman who showered praise on his life, "Madam, if you knew the man I really was, you would spit in my face."
He wasn't talking about hypocrisy. He was referring to the reality of human depravity in people’s lives.
Even leader’s lives.
As Christians, we are redeemed by Christ and engaged in the ongoing process of transformation; but we are sinners nonetheless. So what we do with our sin becomes the pivotal issue. This is where spiritual growth is won or lost. I don't say this lightly, as if attempting to avoid sin is not significant. It is significant. But in our weakness and depravity we will fail, and it is at the moment of failure that we encounter one of life's most defining moments – not simply moving past sin, but moving through it.
Here comes the rub: the typical person of faith has no idea how to react – deeply and biblically – to the sin in their life. Much less how to walk through the four stages critical to addressing it, which begins with the simple task of “realization.”
In the midst of sin, it's often difficult to see the sin. Or perhaps more honestly, we have made the choice not to see it. The first step toward dealing with sin is to realize that we have, indeed, sinned. Faithful to our soul development, God will always bring that conviction to bear. Yet if we ignore the earliest pangs of conviction and instead purpose in our hearts to turn away from God, we dampen the sensitivity within our spiritual system to our choice. The more we turn away, the more calloused and deadened we become.
Right on the heels of realization should flow regret. This is wishing you hadn't done what you did. Unfortunately, regret – by itself – is rarely penetrating. It has more to do with the fact that you are having to pay for what you did (or got caught) than anything else. You're emotionally distraught, but it's because of the consequences you face, not really for the act itself, which speaks to the importance of moving into third stage, “remorse.”
When you move beyond regret into remorse, you experience spiritual sorrow. This is not anguish over what your actions have brought to bear on your life as much as it is agony that you did a wrong thing in the eyes of God. This is the essence of spiritual remorse: having your heart break because you've broken the heart of God.
In my own life, I know how easy it is to admit I’ve taken a "less than best" course of action. In other words, I am quick to express regret. What is missing is any sense of anguish that I have done something wrong. When this refusal to be remorseful is allowed to take full reign in someone’s life, there can be an almost militant spirit that seeks to justify their course of action as both understandable and unavoidable. Albert Camus, in his novel The Fall, observed that, "Each man insists on being innocent, even if it means accusing the whole human race, even heaven." But even a healthy sense of sin that brings remorse isn't the highest or deepest place a soul can travel.
The final destination of the soul when responding to sin should always be repentance. This is when you realize what you've done, regret it, experience authentic remorse over it, and then seek to turn from it. This is the literal meaning of the word "repentance." To repent is to be heading in one direction, come to the realization that it is the wrong way, and with regret and remorse, turn around and head where you should have been going all along.
One of the easiest habits to fall into is the repetitive cycle of confession that seeks forgiveness, over and over again, without ever moving into repentance. You commit a sin, so you confess it and ask God to forgive you. Again and again. This can't be all you do to address the sin in your life. You must move on to repentance. To truly repent isn't simply the seeking of forgiveness, it's turning around. It's stopping, replacing, moving, ending, giving, correcting, quitting, fixing, returning…
…in a word, changing.
Once you seek forgiveness and repent, what then? You are forgiven. And you need to walk in that forgiveness. Accept and apply the grace you have been given. As Corrie ten Boom once said, when God forgives us, he takes our sins to the deepest part of the ocean, attaches a large weight, drops them overboard and puts up a "No Fishing" sign.
But that's often easier said than done. The feelings of guilt and shame rarely just vaporize. They linger on like a bad odor, impacting every facet of our lives, making us question the degree and extent of God's acceptance.
I once read of a medical report that told how amputees will experience the sensation of a phantom limb. They will have lost their arm, or lost their leg, but somewhere, locked in their brains, a memory lingers of that limb, a memory so strong that they can feel their toes curl or their hand grasp, but it's not really there. God doesn't want that for our lives. The Bible tells us that: "This is how we shall know that we are children of the truth and can reassure ourselves in the sight of God, even if our own conscience makes us feel guilty. For God is greater than our conscience, and he knows everything." (I John 3:19-20)
But what if we sin again? No matter how authentic the repentance, we may fall prey to the temptation again, and wonder what this means for our relationship with God.
There are two extremes to avoid. The first is presumption. We should never wink at our sins, and say: "Oops, sorry, God. I guess I kind of blew it this time. I sure am glad you're aaalll llloooovve" and then think of God chuckling a bit saying, "Oh well, boys will be boys." God is not mocked, and grace must never be cheapened. Paying for our sin cost Jesus His very life, and the call on life is plain: "You must be Holy, for I am Holy." (I Peter 1:16)
Equally distorted would be to forget the scandalously inexhaustible depth of grace that God is only too willing to bestow upon authentically repentant men and women. The wonder and joy of this can be found in the 32nd Psalm. It's worth a read:
Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be - you get a fresh start, your slate's wiped clean. Count yourself lucky - God holds nothing against you and you're holding nothing back from him. When I kept it all inside, my bones turned to powder, my words became daylong groans. The pressure never let up; all the juices of my life dried up. Then I let it all out; I said, “I'll make a clean breast of my failures to God.” Suddenly the pressure was gone - my guilt dissolved, my sin disappeared. (Psalm 32:1-5, Msg)
Yet throughout this journey, it would be wise to remember that Satan is not exactly sitting on the sidelines cheering this process on. He despises a repentant life, so he will do what he can to muddy the waters. He will try and have you resist realization, resent regret, reject remorse, and refuse repentance.
And even if he’s not successful at any of those junctures, he will then earn his reputation as the great accuser.
Here's what will happen:
The Holy Spirit will convict you of sin in your life. You will handle it in a God-honoring way, moving through realization and regret, remorse and repentance. After that process has come to fruition, Satan will move in and accuse you of that sin.
"Who do you think you are?"
"You call yourself a Christian?"
"No Christian would ever do what you did."
"You don't really think you and God are just going to be 'okay' after that, do you?"
We must learn to discern the difference between the voice of the evil one and the voice of the Holy Spirit. When it comes to sin, the Holy Spirit will convict, but never accuse. Satan has only one note to sing, and he uses it for the monotone chant of indictment.
Anything but the new lease on life repentance brings.
Anything but moving through sin as part of the journey
...to moving past it.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.