He hadn’t sinned one single time in a whopping 24 years. We were standing at the gas pumps, late one Saturday night, in my home town of Shamrock, when he informed me of this biographical detail. I was a teenager, fueling my pickup for a night on the town, when this stranger approached me and struck up a conversation. He was a preacher, in town to lead a revival at one of the gazillion churches that dotted our Bible Belt community. I suppose he was out doing his own kind of evangelizing that evening, and, for some reason, I had the look of a potential convert. I asked for clarification, and, he affirmed, straight-faced, vehemently confident, that it had been one score and four years that he had lived sin-free. To this day, looking back, I wish I’d have had a flash of inspiration, and hauled back and bloodied his nose right then and there, just to test his ability to withstand temptation.
I’ve never gone 24 days without sinning. Or 24 hours. Or 24 minutes, for that matter. And neither had that man, his claims notwithstanding. I don’t know whether he was a lunatic, or worse, a hypocrite, but he was certainly one more self-deluded spiritual type who looked at the law of God as a cow stares at a new gate-- seeing but not understanding. The Lord of the law makes things difficult for us, for He not only requires outward obedience but inward obedience. Indeed, He demands inward delight in His “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” Not only must I refrain from murdering someone, even my worst enemy, but I must love him, put his interests ahead of my own, nurse him back to health if necessary, and rejoice in the life that is his. Not only must I not commit adultery, I must refrain from lusting after the body of any woman, not matter how tiny her bikini, no matter how my hormones rage, and simultaneously defend and uphold sexual purity and marital fidelity amongst all. With my mouth and my hands, in my heart and my mind, at work and home and school and church, and even in those thoughts that I alone entertain, there must be complete and uninterrupted love toward God and love towards my neighbor, a selfless devotion toward the good and an utter rejection of all that is bad.
That all being said, come to think of it, I’ve never gone 24 seconds without sinning.
But each person has his particular demon, or demons, that assault him most. Perhaps it’s pride, or lust, or selfishness for you. Maybe it takes the form of drugs or alcohol abuse, or a string of promiscuous liaisons. Maybe it’s your mouth, for gossip and slander are your bread and butter. Unless, like the preacher from my youth, you’re self-delusional, you know what lurks beneath. You know the beast within. And though you stab it with your steely knives, it keeps rising from the grave to attack you again.
Here’s the sobering truth: it’s a lifelong war. There will be no truce between the good desires and bad desires within you. Evil will wave no white flag. Don’t imagine you can arrest your demons, shackle them, put them behind bars, then spend the rest of your life in peaceful bliss. God calls you to combat, to warfare of the spirit, to holy violence against the demons within. I so often forget that. For the slothful soul within me is enamored with an easy, lazy Christianity, that says I'll just go ahead and cave to temptation, then Jesus will absolve me. But such an attitude, that supposes the Gospel is a permission slip to sin, is nothing more than a self-taught lie. God calls you to constant vigilance, for He knows that this life is a war zone. Unsheathe your knife, and kill the beast within over and over and over, for peace is completely attained only on the other side of the grave.
As you fight, cling also to this all-encompassing truth of Christianity: that Jesus of Nazareth has paid, in His own blood, for each and every failure on your part to live up to God’s law. He forgives you, and He will continue to forgive you, no matter what, no matter how many times you fail, no matter how flagrant your trespass. He is not a “three strikes and you’re out” kind of God. When the beast within overcomes you, He will wash you in the blood of the Lamb. When your righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, indeed, when it doesn't exceed that of the porn star and meth cook, He will strip away the filthy rags of your own righteousness and clothe you in His own white, regal raiment. When sloth and lust and greed and addiction have their way with you; when, try as you might, you eventually give in to the allurements of the world and your own flesh; He stands there with a face full of love, saying, "Come to me, all you who stink and are stained and hate what you've done, and I will forgive you, wash you, feed you, let you sleep in my own bed, and I'll sit beside you as you dream of the reality that is no dream, namely, that you are my own dear child."
I stand forgiven. I stand armed. And these two truths stand in harmony, united by the Christ who dwells within me, both as Savior and Warrior.