We don’t need a psychologist to inform us that people who are charitable, caring, and compassionate generally rank higher on the happiness scale. We know people like this. And we’ve experienced it ourselves. We go out of our way to lend someone a hand or donate a little extra to charity, and what happens? We feel a rush of pleasure. We feel better about ourselves.
In a cartoon in The New Yorker this week, a patient sits expectantly on the table as his doctor glances down at the charts. “Here’s your problem,” the physician says, “it looks like you’re paying attention to what’s going on.”
For more years than I care to remember, a stalker has cast her shadow over my life. She trails me to work, spies on me at home, skulks nearby when I go out on the town. Never is she far away, and never does she slack in her pursuit. She’s a different breed of stalker, however, so reporting her to the police will do no good.
When residents near Holy Trinity Church were rattled from their sleep Saturday night by the sounds of drums and laughter and fireworks, they didn’t know what was happening. “It was like a full blown Mardi Gras had erupted next door,” one neighbor complained. The church, usually a gentle giant of a structure, dark against the midnight sky, was ablaze with a rainbow of lights and echoed with sounds of whooping and singing. Two police officers were dispatched to the scene.
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.
You’ve seen it happen, probably experienced it yourself. A serious relationship ultimately darkens. But the disappearance of its light is not like the flick of a switch. It’s more akin to the dying of a campfire: dancing flames burn down to collapsing embers. It takes time. After all, you invested some of yourself in that person. You swapped secrets, made memories, relished intimacies. Even if the relationship ended badly, you can’t simply unremember the happy times. So try as you might to move on, to evict that person from your head and heart, they seem to be everywhere. You drive past that restaurant where you enjoyed a meal together; there’s that song on the radio you danced to. With a mind full of memories, and a present pregnant with the past, learning to un-love an ex-love is an ongoing, long-term struggle.
It is not much different when that serious relationship happened to be with a particular sin. Maybe the addiction or the sex or the stealing or the violence—whatever your lover was—ultimately made your life a living hell before you finally severed those bonds. But there is no delete button in your brain that easily eradicates all memories of that sin-to-sinner relationship. For between the hours of pain, there were moments of pleasure. The demons know to coat their lips with sugar, so that later, even when they begin to devour us, we still foolishly taste the sweetness of their kiss. Even more complicated is when, in the very midst of sin, a gift of God is given. For example, children are a gift of the Lord, but what if a man fathers a child with another man’s wife? That son or daughter, the embodiment of their adulterous liaison, is also the embodiment of a divine gift. These situations of sin and repentance and God’s activity therein can get real messy, real quick.
So here is our dilemma: even though we have given up the drugs, or ended the affair, or stopped the stealing—severed the bonds with whatever our ex-sin may be—we ask ourselves, “Have I repented enough? Have I repented sincerely enough? Since I still struggle to un-love the ‘good things’ that happened while I was engaged in that sin, have I repented at all or am I just deceiving myself?”
The struggle against sin, any sin, is lifelong. A woman may never shoplift again or a man embezzle from his company again, but the monster of greed that drove them to steal abides in the lair of their heart to their dying day. Repentance is not an occasional emotion, but an ongoing motion. It is the motion of God’s hand, reaching down to grab the old Adam by his neck and shove his head again and again and yet again under the waters of Baptism, that the new man in Christ might arise again and again and yet again. The entire life of believers is one of repentance.
Therefore, drawing lines that demarcate where repentance begins and where it ends is like drawing lines in water. It gets even worse if you start asking quantitative or qualitative questions such as, “Am I repentant enough?” or “Have I shown sufficient contrition?” or “Am I sorry because of what I did or only because I got caught?” Such questions are not only wrong-headed; to demand an answer to them from yourself or others is likely only to drive you to question your repentance, its sincerity, and ultimately whether God has forgiven you in Christ.
Here is the most important point I want to make: Absolution is never a layaway plan, forgiveness you finally get to take home once you’ve satisfied the payment plan with enough acts of repentance. That’s because forgiveness does not originate from repentance; it originates solely from Christ. The father did not forgive the prodigal son because he returned home, said he was sorry for his sins, and was unworthy to be called a son anymore. The father had forgiven his son even while that son was feeding swine in a faraway country. The father had forgiven his son before he saw him a long way off and began running toward him. The father had forgiven his son because he was his son, because he loved him as only a father can. So it is with us. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself,” (2 Corinthians 5:19). The world was absolved on Good Friday. And that forgiveness, given to you in the here and now, is not earned, or allowed, or sweetened, or strengthened, or made more real by your repentance.
Should you repent of the wrong you’ve done? Of course. Should you continue to repent as you struggle to un-love that ex-sin? Of course. You will never repent enough. You will never repent sincerely enough. But forgiveness is not based upon having enough repentance or having sufficiently sincere repentance. Absolution is based upon the atoning work of Jesus Christ. His atonement is enough. His sacrifice was perfectly sincere. His blood covers not only the sin of which you repent, but your imperfect repentance for that sin.
The entire life of believers is one of repentance, but more importantly, the entire life of believers is the life of Jesus Christ, whose love for us is always more than enough.
The national media would have been blood-drunk. Sex always makes for a catchy headline, especially when politicians are involved. But this was a bonanza of epic proportions. A national leader gets caught with his pants down. Rumor is his paramour is a military wife. But the story gets even juicier. Turns out she's pregnant, and her husband, who couldn't possibly be the father, was all-too-conveniently killed on the battlefield recently. And, as icing on this scandalous cake, the nation's leader makes the war widow his wife. When the scandal of David and Bethsheba leaked out, reporters would have descended upon the Jerusalem palace like locusts on a ripened field.
This story of lust and adultery, intrigue and murder, callousness and cover-up, captivates readers to this day. Perhaps that's because it's one of those ripped-from-the-headlines biblical stories. Perhaps it's because the characters in the narrative make "better people" feel even better about themselves. And perhaps it's because some of us see ourselves, and our own lurid personal narratives, reflected in this biblical story. For those of us in this latter category, a poetic outgrowth of David's sin, and subsequent repentance, is especially meaningful. I refer to Psalm 51, which according to its heading, David penned after his affair with Bathsheba.
I have prayed this psalm more times than any other. Its confessions and laments and declarations of faith express perfectly the bitterness and sweetness of the life of repentance, of dying and rising. Yet within this psalm, one expression had always tripped me up. Indeed, when I prayed it, I seemed to utter a half-truth, at best. It comes near the beginning, where David says,
Against You, You only, I have sinned And done what is evil in Your sight, So that You are justified when You speak And blameless when You judge.
"Against You, You only, I have sinned." How could you say that, David? You sinned against God, to be sure, but also against Bathsheba, Uriah, your family, your military, indeed, your entire nation. How can you possibly limit the scope of your sin, and need for confession, to God alone?
Perhaps the answer to that question is found in a parallel situation, this one related to the holiness of God. In her liturgy, the church sings, "You alone are the Holy One," (Gloria in Excelsis), echoing Revelation 15:4, "Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.” God alone is intrinsically, eternally, essentially holy. Yet, God is not stingy with His holiness; He grants it to people, places, things, and times. They share in what is His. The Lord, the Lord alone, is holy. And all else that is holy is holy because it is of Him. To desecrate that holiness is to do harm to the one with whom the Lord has shared His holiness, but the desecration is truly and ultimately directed at God alone, since He is the sole source of sanctity.
Similarly, when I seduced Bathsheba, when I stole from and murdered Uriah, when I brought dishonor to my family, when I failed in my office--when I was David--I sinned against all these people. Their forgiveness I implore. At the same time, against God, God only, I have sinned and done what is evil in His sight. For it is His law I have broken, His office in which I have failed, His people against whom I have sinned. All is from Him, so all I have taken, I have taken from Him. All others against whom I have sinned, I have sinned because they are of Him.
Within this confession, there is also a hidden beauty, a secluded comfort that is perhaps only truly appreciated when it is a lived reality. There were, I suspect, people in Israel during David's lifetime who never forgave him for his scandalous conduct, his lies, his lust, his bloodshed. He had sinned against them, to be sure, but even in his life of repentance, even as he sought their absolution, they withheld it, whatever their reasons might have been. Did their refusal to forgive mean that David was unforgiven? Did David's absolution depend on people's willingness to forgive? Absolutely not. For "against You, You only, have I sinned." Just as confession is directed fully and ultimately to God alone, so absolution is received fully and ultimately from God alone, in Jesus Christ.
There is the hidden beauty in this seemingly limiting confession of King David. For David's sin, another David would pay the price in blood. In Him, and in Him alone, would absolution for the world be earned and given. For that reason, this verse from Psalm 51 that used to trip me up, now is my greatest delight. For as much as it may hurt that others refuse to forgive, Christ does not. Against Him, Him only, have I sinned. And from Him, Him only, I receive absolution, full and free.