“But here is why I was treated with mercy: so that in me as the worst, Christ Jesus could demonstrate his utmost patience, as an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life.” – 1 Timothy 1:16 (NET)
Some people, after reading my previous essay about the necessity of maintaining a balance between the mind, the heart and the will, might find themselves slightly unsettled. They figured if someone who professes to be a Christian regularly falls into potholes of depression it’s an indication that their conversion was probably bogus from the get go. But that rationale is not backed by scripture. If simply believing in Jesus marked the end of all angst then everything after John in the New Testament could be labeled anemic fluff and there would be no need for the church. Saved people would gleefully slap their fish symbol onto the back of their SUV, motor away to a peaceful land of continuous joy and live happily ever after. End of story. However, we know that’s not the case and the Epistles bear it out. The members of the body of Christ the apostles addressed in their letters were just as saved as you and me but Paul, Peter, John and others wrote to them because they were troubled, sad and not enjoying their salvation. This supplies more evidence that the born again blues is something that affects many Christians and always has. If you fit in that category you can glean a tiny bit of comfort in knowing that your unhappy feelings are a surefire sign that you’re a foot soldier in the army of Christ. (Actually, if perchance you’ve never had a bad day since you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior you might want to reevaluate your commitment because there’s a war going on and you’re not contributing to the cause by watching it from the safety of the tree line.) That shadowy guy in the sniper’s perch on the other side is none other than Satan and the moment you put on the armor of Christ he lined you up in his rifle scope’s crosshairs. He can’t “unsave” us but he can make our foxhole a miserable place to be if we listen to his vile propaganda. That’s why the teaching and instructions contained in the Epistles are there. To help us tune him out.
The chapter that our featured scripture is lifted from addresses one of the devil’s most effective tactics. It lies in pulling the rug out from under a believer and then coercing them to watch again in their minds the guilt-inducing, MA-rated documentary of their mortal existence. Satan’s desired result is that they will then slog about in a funk because they can’t move beyond some unspeakable sin they committed in the past. They hold a grudge against themselves. Now, this doesn’t make them stupid Christians. On the contrary, most of them know their soul is safe in the everlasting arms, that they can never be “good enough” to merit God’s grace and that they’re totally dependent on Jesus Christ as their only hope for survival. They’ve got the vital doctrines down pat. “So what’s the problem?” you might ask. The problem is the rhinoceros they can’t seem to drive from their living room. The brutish animal that only they can see, I might add. No matter how hard they try, they find themselves continually analyzing it, scrutinizing it and condemning themselves over it every day and, therefore, they wallow in the doldrums. Their whole I-can’t-forgive-myself condition being contradictory to the message of the gospel seemingly has no effect on their suffering. The dadgum thing just won’t go away. These are people who think their egregious sin belongs in a different category from everyone else’s. When reminded that they’ve been forgiven by none other than the great I AM they respond with something along the lines of “Yeah, that’s true. But…” For most of them it won’t be the first time their big “but” got in the way.
There’s two main reasons for this. One, it’s a favorite ploy of Satan’s because it’s so gratifying and useful to him. Upon bringing a believer down he can then point them out to non-believers as examples of the earthly mess following Jesus will land them in. Two, it’s a magnification of an ignorance of doctrine and, in particular, that of prayer. I know I’m skating on thin ice by saying such a thing but hear me out. Prayer alone won’t pull you up and out of depression. Don’t misunderstand. Prayer is essential and we must do it “without ceasing” but it won’t solve this pesky problem because praying for God to make the stinky rhino depart over and over will usually do nothing but remind you of its stubborn presence. Besides, God may have a purpose in it being there. He might be waiting on you to work through it instead of just wishing it would disappear. This brings us to an examination of the words of Paul from earlier in 1 Timothy: “I am grateful to the one who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me faithful in putting me into ministry, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor, and an arrogant man. But I was treated with mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief, and our Lord’s grace was abundant, bringing faith and love in Christ Jesus. This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ – and I am the worst of them!” Whether you realize it or not, this is superlative news. In essence Paul is saying that Jesus saved him in order to display him as a case in point for those who think their particular iniquity exceeded the limits of God’s grace. Put another way, if Jesus can redeem a man who intended to initiate and ramrod a Christian holocaust then he’s more than willing to save you, no matter what you’ve done. This profound passage gives you a place to start working on your self-forgiveness.
But Paul goes further, insisting that we must not get caught up in comparing sins. He implores us to grasp that there is only one sin and that is the sin of unbelief. He’s not referring to atheism; it’s about not trusting in what God has said in his Word. We must always think of sin in terms of how it erodes our relationship with God and nothing is more serious than that. Begin with an acknowledgement that we’re all wholly dependent on grace. I quote Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “It takes the same grace of God to save the most respectable person in the world as the most lawless person in the world. Nothing but the grace of God can save anybody, and it takes the same grace to save all.” Yet we often reject that notion. We still think it takes more mercy to forgive a rapist than a gossiper but it’s a matter of fact that both transgressions are equally toxic to one’s relationship with the Heavenly Father. When Joseph was tempted to sleep with Potiphar’s wife he said “How could I do such a great evil and sin against God?” The boy had his priorities straight. Committing adultery was one thing, offending God quite another. Take David’s exclamation when he was exposed as a murderer and lustful womanizer. He cried, “I have sinned against the Lord!” He wasn’t minimizing what he’d done to others but he knew the most damaging aspect of his actions was what it had done to his walk with God. In the long run Paul said our relationship with God and His Law is all that matters. Our individual sins don’t hold a numerical value that coincides with their severity. Life isn’t a golf tournament where the guy with the lowest score at the end gets the green blazer. Not so sure about that? Check out Paul’s list of the “works of the flesh” in Galatians. The obvious ones are tossed right in with the not-so-obvious. Idolatry? Heck, yeah! Sexual immorality? Well, duh! Murder? You bet! But jealousy? Anger? Selfish rivalries? Say what? What are crimes of the heart doing on that list? You mean to say slandering someone is on a par with carjacking their Mercedes? “Exactamundo!” sayeth the Lord. James 2:10 makes it clear. “For the one who obeys the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” Ouch! In other words, our respect (or lack thereof) for God’s laws is a reflection of our relationship with Him and any breach on our part degrades that relationship. Therefore, every sin committed is another brick in the wall, so to speak. There is no sin that doesn’t put distance between you and God.
In the final analysis, not letting go of a particular sin in your past belies a lack of trust in God’s Word. Think about it. 1 John 1:10 says “But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us from all unrighteousness.” Notice it says all. If you don’t take that statement of truth to heart and continue to deem your particular sin an exception to what God has promised to forgive then you are, in a way, calling the Bible an unreliable, flawed book and there’s your core problem in Technicolor. Don’t be arguing with God about this. You can read where hungry Saint Peter heard God’s voice telling him that he was now free to eat all kinds of previously taboo meats and Peter responded with a defiant “No way!” God roared back with a clear, what-part-of-that-did-you-not-get line, “What God has made clean, you must not consider unclean!” It doesn’t take a genius to see that it also applies to your forgiveness. The blood of Jesus bleached out all your dark stains. Believe that to the depths of your very soul. Don’t keep making payments on a debt that’s been paid in full and, in so doing, miss the highly personal implications of the cross. When the angel appeared to Joseph in Matthew 1:21 he told him that the baby Mary was carrying in her womb would “…save his people from their sins.” He didn’t add an aside that your horrible sin wouldn’t be included. 1 Peter 2:24 states, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness. By His wounds you were healed.” There’s no hidden clause, no fine print. Paul reiterates in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we would become the righteousness of God.” Every single one of our trespasses was erased. None were left out. When Christ exclaimed that “It is finished” it was a done deal. All sins of the past, present and future were covered. He took care of them all. Ponder that and see if you can come up with a legitimate reason to hang on to your “huge mistake” for another second.
In an earlier essay I emphasized that understanding the ramifications of “justification by faith” is of the utmost importance to any Christian whether they suffer from the blues or not. Justification is so much more than mere forgiveness. It means that we’ve been clothed from head to toe in the brilliant holiness of Christ for all time to come. God no longer sees the pre-believing us, he now considers us to be as spotlessly clean as his beloved son, Jesus. If past sins are still haunting you it’s because you have yet to grasp the true meaning of your union with Christ. That’s what salvation is all about. You were once one with Adam but now you’re one with your Lord and Savior. In the fifth and sixth chapters of Romans Paul taught that you died with Christ, were buried with Christ, rose with Christ and you’re now seated with Christ in heaven. Your sins are not only forgiven, they’re nonexistent because you accepted His ultimate sacrifice. Listen to what Romans 6:11 says to us. “So consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Bonded to Christ? I can’t imagine getting better news than that.
Here’s the point I’m making. As believers we must never look back at what we did in any other way than to let it inspire us to glorify God and celebrate his amazing grace made literal in Jesus Christ. That’s our challenge. If your past is the culprit in making you sing the Christian blues then do what the Apostle Paul did. He openly admitted that he was once a horrible wretch of a man but he didn’t stop there. He didn’t use that as an excuse to disqualify himself from being an ambassador of the gospel. He did the opposite. He praised God for the privilege of being held up as an example of how far the grace of God will go to redeem every one of his children. He spells it out. “But here is why I was treated with mercy: so that in me as the worst, Christ Jesus could demonstrate his utmost patience, as an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life.” In other words, we shouldn’t view our terrible iniquities in our past as anything but proof positive that Christ can forgive anyone of anything they did if they will lay it at the foot of the cross. And that’s a message the world desperately needs to hear.
I realize that there are still some out there who think that certain sins should be rated UN, as in unforgivable. Especially those perpetrated against people we love. I recall the knee-jerk reaction I had to a statement I came across in Billy Graham’s book, “How to Be Born Again.” He wondered what folks in general would think of a headline that read: “MURDERER PARDONED – GOES TO LIVE WITH JUDGE.” Graham expected that indignant outrage would erupt but then he reminded the reader that God’s mercy has no limit whether we want it to or not. The parables of Jesus teach that the Father in Heaven will go to unimaginable extremes to find one lost sheep, one missing coin or one prodigal son. No sin is too big for Him to handle. Even that one in your past that you might be clinging to. Stop. It doesn’t exist any more. Don’t listen to the devil’s lie that you’re worthless because of something you did long ago. Let go of the rope. It’s not attached to anything. That sin has been eradicated forevermore. The only sin it can produce now is in your doubting God’s Word concerning it and allowing its memory to rob you of your joy and your usefulness in the present and the future. Let the words spoken to Peter ring in your heart, “What God has made clean, you must not consider unclean!” Christ’s sacrifice obliterated it and made you a child of the living God. Rejoice!
(Inspired by the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book “Spiritual Depression.”)