“Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides.”
- Martin Luther
When you’re starting out as a Christian, a lot of folks seem to think that there are only two directions you can go: forwards and backwards. If you pray, read your Bible, go to church, and try to be a generally upstanding citizen, you are moving forwards and growing in your relationship with God. If you are not doing these things, no matter the reason, you are going backwards and therefore falling away from God. There is no other direction.
Thank God that life is not so black and white. If we only stuck to the things that seem godly and right, instead of letting him lead us, we would miss out on so much that he wants to teach us about ourselves and the world. Sometimes I have moved sideways on this imaginary path. Sometimes I have moved two steps (or more) backwards, but then gone a few more steps forwards later. I could try to map out my journey for you Family Circus-style and make some points along the way, but I think that telling two short stories might be easier.
During the first few months that I was at UC Berkeley, I read a daily devotional that I had brought from my home church. (Being a new Christian, I took all the literature that I could get.) One particular piece in this devotional still sticks with me after eight years. The moral of the piece, a mini-exegesis of Romans 14, is that we should tread through life with extreme caution, so that we do not fall into sin or offend another believer’s conscience. The story used to illustrate this moral involves a man who has a dress shirt that he wants to wear to a dinner party, only he’s not entirely certain that it’s clean. His wife tells him, “Remember, dear, if it’s doubtful, don’t!” and that seems to settle it for the guy. He tosses the shirt in the laundry hamper.
The moral of the story is good. We are not meant to let little indiscretions slide, or cause other people to stumble and hope that they will be sorted out.
Unfortunately, this story is for a black and white world. It is followed by a neat little rhyme about a clean conscience, and then the bumper sticker slogan “One little word can spare us a lot of trouble. It's NO.” It seems to suggest that life is best lived completely cut off from anything that has the ability to tempt us or cause us to stumble.
It was hints and suggestions and writings along these lines – Be careful! Don’t do this thing or that thing! Keep careful track of your words and actions! – that led me away from where I should have been as a freshman in college. My intentions were good; I read the Bible, prayed, and tried to avoid unholy speech, drinking, carousing, etc. But while the fundamentals of my life were theoretically sound – Christ had given his whole life for me, so should I not have given my whole life for him? –I wasn’t living life abundantly. I was trying to be perfect on my own, sticking to words of devotionals like the one I read and tiptoeing through college by doing only “God things.”
As a result, I almost ended up spending my college career (and more) in a pretty ungodly way. The two directions crowd, who could only bark “right” and “wrong” were in my devotionals and ingrained in my mind. So I tried to go forward. When I needed to be a part of campus life as much as possible, taking advantage of every available opportunity to get to know other people as friends and acquaintances, I treated them as potential converts to be held up as trophies at church meetings or otherwise rejected altogether. When I needed to learn everything I could from my classes, I focused on just the things that seemed to directly pertain to the Christian life, or the things that would help me get good grades (presumably a godly goal).
I was antisocial, judgmental, and afraid. But I thought I was doing right, and did not know where the tension between who I was and who I thought I should be was coming from. Rather than questioning it, I pushed harder.
On a family vacation after my sophomore year of college, the levee broke. The gospel tracts and devotionals just weren’t cutting it anymore. I realize now it is because they did not leave room for the human being I really was. Rather than preaching a gospel of grace and redemption, and the fact that much of life must be lived to be understood, they preached as if the sum of Christianity was a stark ethical code. So on that vacation, I felt like I was supposed to talk to my family about God every day. But because I had not yet connected with God on a personal level, I was shy and withdrawn and went to bed every night feeling like a failure for staying quiet. It was no surprise that I was wrestling with what I thought I was being called to do. I thought I was already “good,” and that things would magically happen because I was on God’s side. Whatever questions I had and whatever sins I was hiding would be cleared up later, somehow.
One night, the tension became too much. I left my family briefly, went to my room alone and prayed as honestly as I could. I can’t remember the exact words that I used, but I get the impression that I asked for true life, and true salvation…for the tension between who I was and who I should have been to end, for the strength to do what I really should do, instead of what I thought I should do.
Well, God answered. He began to lead me down some pretty unconventional paths to know him and know myself. Not immediately, but gradually, I was led outside my comfort zone and into a new life.
Up until that point, I thought that I had already been completed. I did not realize that I needed to embrace the questions I was asking about God and the parts of me that weren’t right and needed fixing, so that I could really let God in. I should not have imagined that God was unhappy if I was unsure, or uncertain, or struggling, only that I was human and in need of his leading. I also thought that I had been honoring God by withdrawing from the world as much as possible, forgetting that Jesus says his disciples will be “in the world, but not of the world” (John 15:19). I was neither. I tried to hide my true colors as a sinner, because that is what I thought God wanted, and tried to live in a world that did not exist.
If I ever had the courage to open my mouth to my family, I would have either preached a God that I did not know personally, or preached a God who was a teacher and life coach, because that was all he really was to me. Ultimately, I needed to come to a better understanding of myself and of God, the lack of which was the source of my problems. Martin Luther could have told me that who I thought I was, and what I was trying to do, was impossible.
“Be a sinner,” he wrote.
Not “become,” but “be.” It is who I am. We were born into a world separated from God; therefore, we are sinners and will continue to battle our sinful bent until the day we die. The Good News is that if we have asked Christ into our lives, he has the victory over sin, and sanctifies us day by day. The only way that he can do, this, though, is to be invited into our lives, to have access to every part of us. When we try to act holy and pretend that we do not have faults or flaws, this only makes our hearts like houses with locked rooms. If we hold out on Christ, have we really invited him into our lives at all, or have we only accepted him as I had, as a sort of teacher and life coach? If we try to do good in his name but apart from him, is it really good at all?
Luther embraced his own identity as a sinner and Christ’s identity as a savior. He did not lose heart when he sinned, or had questions, or doubted God. It was at the core of his understanding about who he was, as it should be for any Christian, as it should have been for me; nobody is perfect. Luther was not despondent when he fell short of God’s will for his life, nor did he beat himself up over being a fallen human. He embraced his dual identity as a broken sinner and a holy child of God. By “sinning boldly,” instead of sinning privately or covering up his sin, he made no bones about who he was; rather, he reminded himself and others that he was imperfect, and he allowed his shortcomings to be areas where God’s redeeming power could be magnified and ultimately victorious.
There will always be Pharisees, their voices coming from inside my heart and outside my window, who shout that God’s law is paramount, that doubt and sin are practically irredeemable, suggesting that if I am not moving forwards and doing only “godly” things then I am obviously moving backwards. These voices speak only the middle part of the story, the recognition that sin is real and I am accountable for it. But I know the beginning. I was born a sinner; it is as much a part of me as the color of my hair. Since our Fall, this has been the human condition. But while those before me waited expectantly for God’s redemption, the end of the story is written for me. While I was still a sinner, Christ died for me. Beyond any broken law, beyond any guilt, beyond any presumptions or false notions about who I am, he is in my life and redeeming me, and he alone “is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”
I learned a great deal about myself after I truly opened the door to God, acknowledged who I was, and acknowledged who he is. As I became more aware of my identity as a man still in progress, still learning, still opening doors, and still being redeemed in Christ, I became bolder and more outgoing. I forged stronger relationships with other men and women when I was in the mix of life instead of standing in the corner. Though I still find myself some days trying to lock doors in my heart, I know that I have been redeemed. I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great savior, and as Christmas approaches, I hope that you too will embrace who you are, and who he is.
Now display Thy saving power, Ruined nature now restore; Now in mystic union join Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.