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Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Impatient Over Their Misery

Okay, so your sin is impressive.

At least, I’m sure it seems gigantic and unforgivable to you. And since the awareness of the magnitude of sin in our lives, its toxic effects on others around us and its absolute repulsiveness to God is a necessary step in turning away from it, I wouldn’t want to downplay it for you.

Carry on. Be miserable. Have at it.

The Such Were Some of You Argument

More than once as a younger man, I made the mistake of responding to the confessions of friends in spiritual distress over their own guilt with an argument that boiled down to “God has forgiven worse”. You know, the Such Were Some of You argument.

Oh, don’t get me wrong: it’s a legitimate argument. It’s gospel truth. And I find great personal comfort in the fact that:
“… neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
So, yeah, some of those sins were characteristic of me too. I was there back in the day, and I’m not there now. Praise the Lord for that.

But that fact that a long list of worse sinners can be produced at any point does not diminish your specific culpability, or mine. “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” And further, it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make us feel any better about our own sin. It’s a bad argument to throw at a person who has not yet repented.

Misery and Action

You say, “What do you mean, ‘not repented’? I’m totally miserable here. I’ve never been so unhappy in my life.”

I suppose I could answer that with a word study on the meaning of biblical repentance, but that’s something you can discover with a Google search and two minutes at GotQuestions. They’ve totally nailed it, so I won’t reinvent the wheel.

But let me just illustrate the meaning of true repentance from the Old Testament. Here’s the situation: Israel has sinned against God over and over again, despite his constant help and deliverance, by plunging repeatedly into idolatry every time their lives improve. And once again they cry out to God for deliverance.

“ ‘You have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.’ And the people of Israel said to the Lord, ‘We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.’ So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel.”
Notice that initially God is unresponsive to the cry of his people. He says, “I will save you no more”. He’s had it with them, even though they appear to have changed their minds about who the real God is.

Being miserable is not enough. Changing your mind is not enough. Even crying out to God is not enough. Why? Because God is hard-hearted? Not at all.

Put Away the Foreign Gods

The key is in the final sentence of the story: “So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel.”

When the change of mind became a change of action, we see that God finally felt compelled to act. He could not leave the situation alone. As Paul puts his gospel, “I declared … that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.”

Sure, true repentance occurs even before any deeds are performed, and maybe yours is the real deal. God knows perfectly well if your repentance is genuine long before you lift a finger.

Moreover, God has no interest in your good deeds if you think that by doing them you are somehow offsetting the sins of the past, piling your works on the other side of the scale and saying, “Look, God, I’m not so bad after all!” You are that bad. So am I.

Good deeds don’t undo bad deeds. They don’t fix the harm that we’ve done. There is no offset. With some sins, there is no practical way to make amends to those who have suffered. Maybe they’re dead now. Maybe they’re unreachable for other reasons. The clock cannot be turned back. The window cannot be unbroken. To believe that we can somehow undo the wicked things we’ve done is only to delude ourselves and trivialize the damage we’ve caused.

In Short

Forgiveness doesn’t come because you have somehow “fixed it”. You can’t. All that good deeds can ever accomplish is to demonstrate before the world and before heaven that your profession of repentance is not just worked-up, pointless drama-queenery, and that you have genuinely changed. 

Maybe in time they’ll even convince you.

And maybe, just like he did with Israel, God will become impatient over your misery and show his hand in your life.

Just a thought.

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