You never change in the Land of Shadows….
I was a young man of seventeen when the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to the reality of Jesus, and I fell absolutely in love with this Man who gave everything to me. It was exciting and wonderful, and I found out I had become part of a large family of (mostly) really interesting people, who just a short time before I had thought were mentally disturbed, and perhaps dangerous.
But now, I found that God was real—actually real—and this “Christian thing” was fantastic. I was freely given a new life of joy, and adventure, and forgiveness.
Pretty much right away, I learned that there was lots of stuff for us Christians to do to keep us busy and walking on the right track with Jesus. Pray, worship, go to meetings, fast, read and study the Bible, witness, give money, love everyone.
I also learned that those who “had a real heart for God” were the kind of people who “pressed in” with everything in them to know him. No sacrifice was too great. I decided I wanted to become a missionary, because they were the best—and most dedicated—people in the Kingdom. If I could live in a leaky tent somewhere, eat disgusting food, and cast demons out of bloodthirsty heathens before they could kill me, well, life would be good. If I was truly fortunate, I would end up a martyr; but even if I didn’t, Jesus was returning soon (this was in the mid-1970’s) so there was no time to waste.
The years passed, and much as I still wanted to live a life of devotion greater than any that had yet been seen on this earth, I found that I failed a lot more than I succeeded, and I liked comfort a whole lot more than I realized.
Plus, there was this nasty issue of sin that kept getting in the way. I wanted to do right, I wanted—really, really wanted—to be holy as HE is holy. So, I knew that he offered forgiveness freely. But I sinned A LOT, and somehow lived with this continually empty feeling that I was letting God down. Badly.
Over the years, I heard enough sermons and read enough books to know that rationalization was a horrible scourge of the human heart, and I was terrified of becoming someone who would give in to that, so I kept strict watch on my life. A good portion of my prayers were centered around asking forgiveness, seeking to feel horrible about the wretchedness of my sin, and begging God to draw me closer to him. Other people that I knew, or read about, had amazing encounters with the Lord that filled them with hope and joy and a constant sense of refreshed purity that energized them. I, on the other hand, felt just a little dirty most of the time, and felt like God was probably pretty darn sick of the mess I was.
I am keenly aware that there is nothing unique about my experience. There are many who go through this. We know the truth, but we just don’t feel it.
So, we seek to feel closer to Jesus by repenting, desiring to mourn greatly over our sin. The preachers tell us we HAVE TO HATE SIN. (For the record, I do happen to believe that is true. But you won’t get too far hating it by focusing on it.) So we cry, and confess, and pound the ground, and promise this is it! From now on I’ll serve only You, not myself! In my case, I tried to dig into the very core of me to encounter all the wretchedness and sewage that had to be down in there. If I could somehow see the awful full accounting of my rottenness, then my repentance would be real and God would be pleased. (“Aww, hey, look! This guy’s finally Really Sorry!”)
Oddly—tragically—by focusing on the darkness, darkness got deeper and darker, and self-absorption flourished and spread like a fungus. Self-loathing masqueraded as a desire for holiness and the abundant life of Jesus. I was a modern version of the medieval flagellants, whipping themselves for their sins in a desire to ward off the Black Death.
So for all us guilty ones holding whips, preparing to lay into ourselves, here is liberating truth, “…a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners….” (1 Timothy 1:15). The heart of our Creator is lovingly displayed in Jesus and radically revealed through the Scriptures, if we have hearts humble and open enough to just believe that he is faithful and he doesn’t lie. Jesus did everything for us. He is the Light that dawned in our darkness. He is the one who leads us out of our foolishness and our duplicity. He is the one who makes his way straight before our face (Psalm 5:8).
It is human presumption and foolishness to think that we have to grovel our way back into the “good graces” of the One who is grace and truth. We feel dirty, unclean, and ashamed to come before him. We mourn and sigh over our failure and inability and lack. But he is everything and wants to be everything to us. There is no need for us to make him feel better about forgiving us because we are “truly sorry”, or feel “truly guilty” and repentant, thereby proving we want to change.
When I insist on pressing in to know him or get close to him through my faithful effort, I am believing a lie and focusing on my own works, or lack thereof. I spent far too many years in unnecessary sorrow, always focusing on me and my failure of performance and my wickedness of heart. But the white-hot holiness of Jesus is so much greater than the contagion of my sin or your sin. He paid the full price; absorbed every filthy thing satan and our depravity could assault him with, and he arose, our Conqueror Hero.
And when we simply believe that, he gives us a new heart with all his ways and his laws written within, and Holy Spirit living in us as a down payment of his glorious inheritance in us.
When we insist on dwelling the Land of Shadows, all we will perceive is darkness, and we are not conscious of his light. Staring continually into the abyss of failure eventually causes our legs to falter, and we become dizzy and fall in. Jesus has come to give light and remove us from the miry pit. Light shows everything clearly. Light brings life and joy. Light allows us to live and work for him with clear focus, understanding that we have been redeemed. We do not hide from sorrow, or from our need for holiness. Without holiness no one will see the Lord. But it is he who makes us holy.
With what shall I come before the Lord,
And bow myself before the High God?
Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings,
With calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
Ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8).
We are to humble ourselves and trust him and follow him, to allow him to teach us what is good and true and right, and to vanquish our sin and uncleanness—as indeed, he has! We are to focus on HIM, filled with joy as people released from bondage, who lived in darkness and now live in the glory of his great light.
He has made the way for us to leave the land of darkness and shadow, and bask in his shining love. Let us believe, and dwell there!