Living Confessionally, Part 2: Expanding our view of sin

Not long ago I listened as a group of women talked about Bible studies they’d recently been involved in. One spoke of studying First John. “What surprised me most was the emphasis on confession,” she said. “We don’t do this in my church service, and I find I don’t do it very often personally either. I mean, I do when I see I’ve lied or been unkind, but most of the time I have a hard time recognizing my sin.”

It was an honest acknowledgement, and I understood her. We can easily fall into the trap of seeing sin as a list of things to avoid. The rich young ruler did this; he checked off the Ten Commandments as complete. And even though I understand this is impossible, I sometimes fool myself into thinking that if I attack the sins listed in the Scriptures, one by one, I can be free from them. This is not sanctification; this is self-improvement, the belief that I am really okay at the core, it’s just that I have these sins stuck to my surface.

The prayer of confession deepens my view of sin far, far beyond this.

“… we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

In this blog entry I want to look at the last two statements, for these define sin: not loving God with the whole heart; not loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

The “whole heart” includes all of our being: mind, soul, and strength (physical self), and the term “neighbor,” as explained by Christ in His parable of the Good Samaritan, does not exclude ANYONE, no matter how unlike me they happen to be.

So for me to NOT sin would mean I would need to wholly/completely love God AND every person I encounter each and every minute of my life

What would that be like?

I have no idea! I don’t even know what it would be like for a single moment because I can’t do it. I am unable to look completely away from myself, unable to focus upward and outward without one eye—at least—always gazing in. Even my “good” works are tainted with this “looking in.” I may do them with partially pure motives, but at some level I am hoping they will make me feel better about myself or exalt me in God’s or others’ sight.

I am incapable of pure love, even when the object is the pure and wonderful God, even when it is a newborn infant, as innocent and beautiful as a human can be.

The prayer of confessions helps me understand that I am not a sinner because I sin. No, I sin because I am broken at my very core.

The prayer of confession leads me to the huge depth of my need.

Note: As I was thinking about this, I listened to a Tim Keller podcast in which he said the phrase “homo curvatus in se,” and explained it was Martin Luther’s definition of sin. In researching this phrase, I discovered an article on by Matt Jenson (Associate Professor of Theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University) titled “The Shape of Our Sin.” Here’s a summary of part of his article, which is drawn from his book The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on ‘homo incurvatus in se’:

Augustine and Martin Luther wrote about sin as “humanity curved in on itself” (homo curvatus in se). Augustine said that because of this “curvatus,” we use everything, even God, for the enjoyment or comfort of ourselves, and Luther said this sin extends throughout our entire person—there is not a single part of us that is not centered on self. Karl Barth builds upon Augustine’s and Luther’s views and says that curvatus is also seen when we believe ourselves rather than God. We exalt our own statements as “truth” and reject God’s truths as lies. And he further makes the point that while we often see our “curvatus” as pride, the opposite is also true: when we debase ourselves and are constantly focused on our shortcomings, this is but another form of the curvatus. We are still focused on ourselves.

Turn TO

Judy is 16! Cake by Emily.

Judy is 16! Cake by Emily.

Last week I tried on a pair of jeans I hadn’t worn in several weeks and discovered they were a bit tight. That prompted another thing I hadn’t done in awhile: I stepped on the scale.

It was certainly not the result I was hoping for. (By the way, weight loss is NOT the focus of this blog post.)
I stepped off the scale and thought of the week ahead of me—a week full of baking and sweets for three of my kids’ birthday parties.
Not a good week to try to cut back.
So I came up with a self-control strategy: I would wear those slightly-too-tight jeans to remind me that I needed to resist.
It didn’t work.
In fact, it had the opposite effect: I felt slightly depressed, and chocolate seemed like a good antidote. After scraping brownie batter from the mixing bowl into the pan, I eyed the spatula in my hand and the leftover batter on the sides of the bowl. I shifted my jeans with my free hand and thought dark thoughts, like, “Oh, why not? It’s not like these are ever going to be completely comfortable again.”
Today I went back to wearing my comfy, stretchy jeans.
And I had a complete change in attitude! I felt good, relaxed but also confident. Yes, you CAN say no to that, I told myself when I pulled rolls hot from the oven. You can have an apple instead.
I’ve realized there is a correlation between my tight-jeans strategy and my attitude toward my sinfulness.
I’ve been writing about my sin a lot lately. I find that the closer I grow to Jesus and the more I study Scripture, the more aware I seem to become of my own sinfulness—that it’s not just actions or even thoughts but a selfish focus rooted deep in my core.
I identify with St. Anselm, who said, “My life affrights me. For when carefully reviewed, its whole course shows in my sight like one great sin; or at least it is well-nigh nothing but barrenness. Or, if any fruit is seen in it, that fruit is so false, or so imperfect, or in some way or other so tainted with decay and corruption, that it must needs either fail to satisfy God, or else utterly offend Him.”
I don’t think I would have understood Anselm’s quote as a young believer. I used to think I was okay, not such a bad person, but now I see my faults much more clearly. And I know that as I grow older, my sinfulness will grow even more apparent to me.
I understand that Christ’s death was the once-for-all payment for my sins: past, present, and future, but how do I deal with this growing sense of my sinfulness?
The answer is this: I repent—again and again, like the first of Martin Luther’s 95 theses: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said, ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
“Repent”: to turn from sin and turn to God. It has TWO parts, but all too often my approach has been like my wearing the too-tight jeans last week: I stay, at least subconsciously, halfway between the two. “Oh, I see that, deep down, I am not patient. I am not kind. I am mean and self-centered, and even my goodness is NOT good—not true GOOD.” I turn from my sinfulness in horror, but I don’t complete the “turning to.” I stay in between in a state of guilt and shame.
It’s not true repentance if only do the first “turn.”
Hudson Taylor, the founder of China Inland Mission, regularly asked his believing friends, “Have you repented today?” Now obviously Taylor was asking if they had done some self-examination, if they had asked the Holy Spirit for conviction. But Taylor didn’t want his friends to stop there. He didn’t want them to mope through their days, laden down with a consciousness of their sin. I know this because I’ve read Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret. It took years of spiritual self-beating for Taylor to realize Christ’s finished work and CLING to the cross as full payment for his shame. He wasn’t about to suggest that his friends go down that same path. No! He knew that wallowing in an acknowledgement of sin is not good! This becomes a denial of Christ’s amazing work.
Taylor wanted them to fully repent: to turn from AND turn TO.
I have several Biblical examples that help me understand complete repentance: Isaiah was “undone” by the contrast between himself and the Holy God; Peter was crushed by the realization that he had denied his beloved Jesus; David wrote, “…my sin is ever before me” after Nathan confronted him with his adultery and murder; and the Prodigal Son said, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Yet all four were quickly restored. Isaiah’s mouth was touched with a burning coal and moments later he was jumping up and down, saying, “Send me, Lord, send me (to do your work)!” After only a short (though very meaningful) conversation, Jesus restored Peter and charged him: “Feed my sheep.” Three verses after his proclamation of sinfulness, David asked, “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness… restore to me the joy of Your salvation.” The Prodigal Son’s Father ran to him, embraced him, kissed him, and threw a party in his honor.
Turn from—fast.
Then, turn TO.
And find that GOD is turned to US.
Because of Christ, He has arms wide open, ready to embrace us and draw us into His limitless love.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I John 1:9

Gray or Glory?

Em and cousin Grace enjoying each other's company last week in Philly

“There’s one! See the purple!”

I followed Em’s pointng finger. Flowers sprouted straight from winter-dark branches, like they’d split the bark and sprung out full-blossomed. The tree literally erupted with spring.

It was yet another drive to-from school, and we needed some magic. “Let’s look for beauty,” I’d told Em, and spotting brilliant yellows, pinks, and lavenders transformed the trip.

Yesterday morning, as I drove home from work, I didn’t have beauty on the mind. I was weighed down with decisions, the busyness of the day ahead, and struggles I knew others were experiencing. Suddenly purple caught my eye.

Here I am.

Holy Spirit whisper.

I resisted, focused on the gray of the leafless trees, the asphalt, the cloud-scudded sky.

But more, more, more, one spot of color after another.

How long will you resist me? And why? What good will your focus on the gray accomplish? Look at ME.

“Your Father in heaven gives good gifts to those who ask him.” Matt. 7:11

I wasn’t asking for any gifts (how ungrateful, since it’s ALL, honestly, gifts)—and I was trying to stay in my funk, in my “gray,” despite His offers and gifts of beauty, of delight—of Himself!

As I looked at a spring-budding world, a world being transformed from gray to color, wakened magically to new life, I realized how strange, silly even, it was to assume that the God creative and powerful enough to do THAT would be unable to fix me! To fix all the problems I saw.

The focal point of my gaze was magnifying the gray, overwhelming all the God-color.

Today PJ and I walked at the dog park.

Though most owners do pretty well at cleaning up after their pets, it’s still a poop minefield. Above was a blue sky and fluffy clouds, pines standing straight like guards, flowering trees spreading branches wide like they were trying to hold hands.

Lots and lots of beauty. But me…well, I was too busy looking down, watching out for poop, to notice it much.

In Isaiah 6:3 the seraphim above the throne of God say, over and over, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The WHOLE earth is full of His glory.

So the problem, again, isn’t His absence, it’s my focus.

Am I going to focus on the gray? The poop?

Or am I going to walk ahead with confidence, trusting that God will “lead me in the path of righteousness,” that He will “make all paths straight,” not just mine.

In her book One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp writes, “…I only deepen the wound of the world when I neglect to give thanks for early light dappled through leaves and the heavy perfume of wild roses in early June… The brave who focus on all things good and all things beautiful and all things true, even in the small, who give thanks for it and discover joy even in the here and now, they are the change agents who bring fullest Light to all the world.”

Two years ago, on a trip to Kenya, we had the amazing opportunity to go INTO the Kibera slum, the second largest slum in the world. A giant man who grew up in it and who still lives and ministers there, took us in, leading the way through the maze of shacks. I watched out for more than poop as I placed each foot, but at one corner my eyes were drawn up to a barred window that had a bright, cheerful curtain. A small jar of wildflowers sat on its sill. Tears came to my eyes and I thought, “You’re here, Lord, even here!”

If I focus on the gray, the poop, I will be overwhelmed, but if I focus on His beauty, the glory of God pinpointing its way through the gray, I have hope: I can pull the gray TO the glory. It’s there; it’s available.

George Washington Carver, who certainly had plenty of gray in his against-the-odds life, said, “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.”

If we will only tune in.

Look for the Glory!

Extra quote (just ’cause I love it): “God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars.” Martin Luther

Maddie, thoroughly enjoying some of the glory in Philly last week