Hope Builder #15: Confess Your Sin (Psalm 51)

After 21 years in ministry, unfortunately, it is no longer easy to surprise me with grueling stories of abuse, abandonment and evil of all shapes and sizes. Horror stories are everywhere. They cross all boundaries — national, economic, racial, religious, gender — and explain much of the depression and addiction we see in society. I am more convinced then ever that all people, even religious people with impeccable moral standards, are capable of really big sin. As Christians, we should expect as much. The Bible clearly describes all humans as sinful from birth. The church has long recognized that large portions of the Bible were written by murderers and adulterers (Moses, David, Solomon, Paul) and that these writers withered in the darkness of their sin and despair until God intervened with his healing grace.

For example, King David penned Psalm 51 after his vilest sin was exposed by Nathan the prophet. David had attempted to cover up an affair with his best friend’s wife, Bathsheba. After his cover up proved futile he ordered the commander of his army to abandon his friend (Uriah) on the battlefield so that he’d be killed by the enemy. David was chivalrous enough to allow Bathsheba to morn her husband’s death, then quickly took her for a wife before anyone suspected that the child she carried was not Uriah’s.

Psalm 51 certainly warns us not to be naive for even the best of us are capable of gross immorality, but it also shows us the path to restoration and forgiveness if only we come out of the darkness and confess our deeds in the light.

  • Call To God For Mercy: David pleads, “Have Mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” Notice David does not base his plea for mercy upon anything he can do to make things right. Rather he bases his hope for mercy only on God’s steadfast love. Only God can blot out his transgressions. Like a sponge that blots out a stain, David trusted that God could somehow soak up his bloodguilt. David looked to the sacrificial lamb as an object lesson to understand how God would absorb sin from a guilty party through an innocent substitute. But we see more clearly. Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who absorbed our sin on the cross and died in our place. Don’t base your confidence for receiving mercy upon anything you do — feeling crummy enough for long enough — for that will only lead to more insecurity. Place your confidence in the fact that God is merciful to sinners, and he blots out their sin by absorbing it into himself and bearing the cost of it in full.
  • Take Full Responsibility: Only when you have hope in God’s mercy will you have the courage to look your sin in the face and own it in full. David cries, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgement. Behold I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me.” David cannot stop thinking about his sin against God. He refuses to label it a lapse of judgement. Rather, he calls his actions evil and declares God is right to judge him. He confesses that his actions flowed from a selfish heart, sinful from the beginning (from conception). His brokenness is comprehensive, not superficial. And though he sinned grievously against Uriah and Bathsheba, David states he has sinned against God alone. Far from failing to admit his offense against others, David used hyperbole to communicate that his primary offense was against God. Even if Uriah was unaware of David’s sin and Bathsheba was complicit; David’s sin grieved a Holy God.
  • Plead For Deep Cleansing and Heart Change: In verses 7-12 notice what David does and does not ask for from God. He does not ask God to relieve his circumstances or save his reputation or deliver him from consequences. Rather he asks God to: purge him, wash him, blot out his iniquity, and create a new heart in him. David doesn’t bother with situational relief. He wants deep cleansing and inside-out change. He pleads with God to not cast him away from His presence or take His Holy Spirit from him. David doesn’t seem concerned about God removing his blessings but he is concerned that God might leave him! So he pleads for God to abide with him. If you’re a big sinner like David, focus is on being restored to God, not regaining your comfort and status.
  • Recognize God’s Plans for Repentant Sinners: Big sinners often feel their life is such a mess that God can’t possibly have a use for them. But in verses 13-19, we learn how repentant sinners are useful to God and to others. They tend to be more sympathetic toward other moral failures and quick to talk about God’s grace. They’re usually raw in their worship and contagious in their joy. They model generosity by offering God their very best. If you’re a repentant sinner, take courage that God has plans to use you powerfully for his purposes.

Too many people are wilting away in despair and darkness because of unconfessed sin. If that is you, let today be the day you come into the light. God was able to work in King David’s situation. What makes you think he cannot work in yours?

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You Always Have A Choice (Part Two)

In Part One, I argued that we always have a choice in how we respond to terrible situations simply because, as humans, we are created in God’s image. We are not brute beasts, so we can choose to transcend our condition and our conditioning. We have “response-ability” — meaning the ability to choose our response. As Steven Covey wrote, “Our unique human endowment lifts us above the animal world. The extent to which we exercise and develop these endowments empowers us to fulfill our uniquely human potential.” 

If we are moral and rational creatures capable of making choices, and not merely animals limited by instinct; why do we often feel helpless to make the choices we should? Jealousy, anger, resentment, addiction and depression seem unconquerable. They hold us down like a lion devouring its victim.

To understand our sense of helplessness we must go back to the beginning. At creation we reflected God’s image perfectly, like a mirror. But after humanity’s fall into sin that reflection was fractured. Now when we look at ourselves, in the shattered mirror of sin, God’s image is distorted. We see heartbreaking brokenness and feel helpless.

Our capabilities appear totally ruined, and yet our responsibility remains. When God appeared to Cain after rejecting his offering God said, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6) God explained to Cain that sin is a ravaging beast; crouching at the door, desiring to consume. He warned Cain not to give into this inner beast (jealous anger) but to rule over it.

Did God ask Cain to do the impossible? No, He asked Cain to claim his identity as a man, made in God’s image; responsible to reflect God’s goodness, wisdom and truth. He warned Cain not to let rage devour his humanity. God implored Cain to exercise reason and trust his Maker, not his anger. Cain chose poorly. His jealousy ravaged him, so he murdered his brother. The beast prevailed.

We always have a choice how we will respond to situations we don’t like. However, we must be careful how we define this ability.

On the one hand, if we over-estimate our ability by failing to account for the devastating effects of sin; we will wrongly assume we don’t need God’s help to see clearly and respond wisely. Like a person who has only looked into a shattered mirror, we are prevented from seeing ourselves accurately. Arrogance keeps us from seeing our sinful ugliness and we think ourselves more beautiful than we are. Any choice we make will appear justified, simply because it is our choice. On the other hand, if we downplay our ability to choose our response; we neglect the common grace God still provides all people. Even after the fall, we retain God’s image. Like God, we evaluate, reason, problem solve, and apply solutions. But ignorance about common grace emboldens excuse making. Like a man pleading insanity, we think we’re beyond judgement because “I can’t help myself” seems a credible excuse. But we are still culpable.

After the fall, human nature was corrupted comprehensively. Everyone’s core shifted from a God focus to a self-focus. We became by nature: self-reliant, self-righteous, and selfish. Our loves and desires, even our fears, shifted from godly to ungodly. Of course, sin hasn’t turned most people into criminals. Most sinners haven’t committed felonies, abused children or raped women. But history proves, again and again, that when God’s providential care is blocked by war, famine and ignorance even the noblest people devolve to brutality.

Yet common grace enables us to still recognize God’s image in all humans. Though the reflection is shattered by sin, every person maintains shards of God’s image. So Christians should not be surprised when they meet non-Christians who are: more thoughtful as friends; more patient as parents; or more generous as neighbors. An aspect of God’s common grace is that He gives good gifts to the godly and ungodly alike. Some people are simply born with better temperaments.

Common grace may be sufficient to enable people to respond well in bad circumstances. But its sufficiency is limited by time and degree because God’s image remains fractured in every living human. Common grace will only keep the shards of the mirror from tearing away from its backing and crashing to the floor in this life.  But in the next life, those who ultimately reject God will lose this restraining grace. Then their beastly nature will roam freely.

Thankfully Jesus offers special grace. He came to restore the broken shards so that God’s image will be reflected perfectly in His people again.

He began our restoration by imaging God perfectly. No matter how bad the situation, Jesus always responded well. Religious leaders collaborated against him. Soldiers beat and mocked him. Disciples betrayed and abandoned him. Yet Jesus responded from the cross with courage and love as He cried out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” (Luke 23:34).

He continues our restoration by giving us His power. When we choose Jesus, His Spirit enters our lives and we are doubly empowered with grace (common and special) to respond well no matter the situation. The remarkable thing about special grace is that it is never limited by time, nor degree because it is God’s Spirit working in us! So the same power that flowed in Jesus — enabling him to overcome betrayal with forgiveness and vice with virtue — flows in us.

So choose how you will respond! By God’s grace may it be with hope!

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(Personal Note: I took a break from blogging to be with my family after my dad passed away from pancreatic cancer on April 28, 2016. Lord willing, I hope to return to posting bi-weekly.)

When the Pursuit of Wisdom Disappoints

I recently taught through the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. The class sparked lively discussion about life’s most troubling experiences and unsettling questions. When asked for their initial impression after listening to the book read aloud, people repeated the words: Confused, Frustrated…Disillusioned.

Ecclesiastes’ sobering introduction decries, “Meaningless! Meaningless…Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” (1:2). When a teenager bursts out with similar sentiments we wonder if adolescent hormones are to blame. But when a seasoned sage declares it, we are deeply troubled. Ecclesiastes was written by an elder statesman — “the teacher, the son of David, king of Jerusalem.” Traditional scholarship credits Solomon as its author.¹

God offered Solomon anything he wanted (2 Chronicles 1:7) and praised Solomon when he did not ask for wealth or honor. Instead, Solomon heeded the advice of his father, King David, who taught him, “My son…get wisdom… never forget wisdom… wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom! (Proverbs 4:1,5-7)

When Solomon asked for wisdom God gave it abundantly! Royal court officials and foreign dignitaries marveled at Solomon’s wisdom. “[Everyone] perceived that God’s wisdom was in him.” (1 Kings 3:28). Though Solomon never asked for wealth and honor; wisdom landed him on top of the world — financially, politically, and socially!

It’s remarkable that the person most qualified to sing Wisdom’s praises instead warned us about its limitations. Solomon wrote, “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business… a striving after the wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:13,17-18)

Wisdom’s limitations present unsettling news for hope seekers. I saw it on the faces of people in my class.

The mentors in my life taught me to get wisdom, just as David taught Solomon. I have enjoyed the benefits of pursuing wisdom as well as suffered the pain of ignoring it.

When I discovered wisdom offered me exceptionally valuable things, I’ve wrongly assumed certainty was part of the offer. Unfortunately living wisely will not guarantee: a healthy marriage, faithful children, financial security, vocational advancement, or good health. Those who confuse absolute guarantees with general principles are prone to misjudge the benefits of wisdom. For example, Proverbs 22:6 has paralyzed faithful parents with false shame after an adult child has gone off the rails. But Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart”) is not a guarantee. It is a proverb, not a law. It is generally true but there are exceptions. Many factors outside of bad parenting can cause people to ruin their lives.

When people ignore the limits of wisdom and grab for certainty, they cause wounds that even the best of intentions cannot salve. They will be exposed as naive, self-righteous or just plain wrong — like Job’s friends.

As a young adult, a few people tried to warn me about wisdom’s limitations. When they suggested my search for understanding might lead to frustrated uncertainty, I thought them jaded or faithless. But then life’s unexpected twists and turns led me to the precipice of my vain assurance and I fell to humbler ground. I realized I might never understand why certain bad things happen. Soon afterward, Solomon became my empathetic friend. He shared my sense of futility — “Meaningless, Meaningless…utterly meaningless!” 

Unexpected comfort comes when we realize the Bible doesn’t conveniently dismiss life’s most troubling dilemmas. In fact it often silences those offering easy answers to allow space for frustrated voices to wail. Even Jesus wailed, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” from the cross (Matthew 27:46).

Jesus’ suffering and death proved there were no easy answers for life’s most disturbing troubles. The solutions we need could not be delivered through a book. But, they could be incarnated in a person. So God sent Jesus. He is the person of exceptional wisdom² who entered our troubled darkness, absorbed it, and conquered it. In Jesus, God crushed despair and meaninglessness and replaced it with resurrected hope!

Jesus may not explain your darkness away, but he has shared it. Eventually he will pierce it again and bring you into new light. Trust Him, even when your best efforts to understand things leave you disillusioned. Though frustration and despair rage, wait on him. He is powerful to deliver!

¹ Strictly speaking the writer of Ecclesiastes is anonymous since no personal name is attached, but the evidence strongly indicates Solomon is the author. 

² See 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

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When Hope Is Tested

As I began writing about hope, one of life’s bitter ironies became a sobering gut-check. I learned that one of my favorite actors, Robin Williams, committed suicide. It affected me more than I expected. The man famously known as “the funny guy” was plagued with sorrow. I never fully realized the extent until after his death.

Privately Robin Williams suffered from long term depression. He had an addiction to cocaine in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He reported that John Belushi’s death was his wake up call forcing him to turn to healthier outlets for relieving his depression. However, in  2010 he acknowledged his continued struggles with alcoholism. Shortly before he took his life, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. His coroner’s report showed he had diffuse Lewy body dementia which his doctor’s reportedly believe was a critical factor leading to his suicide.

My first memory of Robin Williams was his funny quirkiness as Mork, an alien from the planet Ork, who arrived in an eggshell space ship. The sitcom was goofy; a delightful distraction from my homework. I wondered about the man so accomplished at giving joy to others and yet so joyless himself for long periods in his life.

My sadness was amplified when I remembered the role Williams played in What Dreams May Come. It’s a love story about hope overcoming despair. Chris Neilsen (Williams) and his wife Annie lose their children in a car crash. Annie suffers a mental break down and the strain on their marriage leads to the precipice of divorce. On the anniversary commemorating their decision not to divorce, Chris dies in a car crash.  He wakes up in heaven. On earth Annie is unable to cope with her husband’s death. She eventually commits suicide. Chris learns that those who commit suicide go to hell, not as a result of judgement made against them, but because it is their nature to create a nightmare afterlife. “Suicidals” are driven by their pain. But, Chris insists he can rescue Annie from hell, even though he is warned it has never been done. He leaves heaven and journeys to the lowest pit of hell to find her. When he finds Annie, he only has moments.  If he cannot pull her out of hell, she will pull him in. He decides to sacrifice everything for her, even if it means taking on her pain forever. His sacrificial love breaks through her amnesia and her hopelessness. Annie is rescued from hell. The movie’s message is that hope and love can defeat even the darkest despair and pain.

As an actor Robin Williams often represented unconquerable hope.

William’s suicide was a gut-check that knocked the wind out of me.  But it has also served a vital purpose. It compelled me to examine and then re-examine my foundations and ask myself. “What am I resting my hope upon?” Surprisingly that’s an easy question to ignore. It’s easy to deceive ourselves because our conscious answer may not be our most honest answer.

Jesus says it is the key question to answer. In his most famous sermon Jesus says,

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who builds his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat against that house, and if fell, and great was its fall.” Matthew 7:24-27

Houses built on sand hold up fine under blue skies but we need a foundation for our hope capable of enduring all of life’s storms. Our hope must rest on a rock-solid foundation that will endure — abandonment, abuse, autism, betrayal, cancer, car crashes, denied promotions, disability, divorce, dying children, infertility, financial ruin, job loss, heart disease, mental illness . . . even death.

If we have any common sense we know this hope cannot ultimately rest on us. As merely human creatures, we are made of dust. We are not rock solid. Robin Williams reminded me of that simple yet forgettable truth. He was an amazing man. But, no matter how accomplished we are in life — no matter how experienced or clever we are at dealing with life’s darker side, we are but sand. When life’s storms come, our houses will fall. So we must look outside ourselves to someone infinitely more accomplished and experienced and clever. We must look to God himself.

Robin Williams could never have lived up to all the heroic characters he portrayed on the big screen. However, when I realized those characters reflect a real life giant; my confidence returned. In What Dreams May Come I recognized the real hero implied by the writers when I noted that Chris is a nickname for Christopher (‘image of Christ’). As the Apostle’s creed proclaims, Jesus Christ is the one who actually left heaven and entered hell to win back his lost bride and give her living hope

Tested by hell, this hope remains. It’s the only foundation that will never crumble — no matter the storm.

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The Secret for Overcoming Despair

For a long time scientists have wondered why some people linger in despair and others pop out of it. Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism and past president of the American Psychological Association, was acclaimed for scientifically dissecting despair in the laboratory to see how it works. Despair is no longer a mysterious black box. Hopelessness can actually be measured by how you choose to explain bad events. He writes,

Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair. . . People who make permanent and universal explanations for their troubles tend to collapse under pressure, both for a long time and across situations.”

Seligman developed the “hope score” which measured the degree of pervasiveness and permanence a person showed when explaining bad events in their lives.  

He also tested a third variable of the “hope score”, not as determinative as the first two, called personalization. Those that internalize bad events by blaming themselves are more pessimistic than those that externalize bad events by blaming others or circumstances. But, Seligman writes an important disclaimer:

Although there are clear benefits to learned optimism – there are also dangers. Temporary? Local? That is fine. I want my depression to be short and limited. I want to bounce back quickly. But external? Is it right that I should blame others for my failures? Most assuredly we want people to own up to the messes they make, to be responsible for their actions. Certain psychological doctrines have damaged our society by helping to erode personal responsibility: Evil is mislabeled insanity; bad manners are shucked off as neurosis… I am unwilling to advocate any strategy that further erodes responsibility.”

Seligman’s research has helped millions identify their own pessimistic explanatory styles and replace them with optimistic explanatory styles. But there were two limitations presented by his research. First, He didn’t resolved the dilemma about personal responsibility. Second, his laboratory experiments measured localized and temporary pain, not permanent and pervasive suffering.

But, what if the bad events in your life are in fact pervasive, permanent and personally caused? Suppose these nasty p-words are not just in your head, as an explanatory style, but are objectively true!  

Joni Erickson broke her neck diving off a pier and became a quadriplegic. Her broken neck is tragically pervasive, inhibiting every aspect of her life. It’s also permanent, binding her to a wheel chair for over 50 years. What kind of hope can we offer a person like Joni?  

If this life is all that there is then Joni Erickson’s spinal cord injury is truly permanent and pervasive. Explaining away her darkened reality with an optimistic explanatory style sounds ridiculous. But, if the resurrection of Jesus Christ happened, then this life isn’t all there is. God guarantees another. When Jesus returns, those in Him shall rise with new physical bodies in a fully renewed cosmos. Joni imagines that day and writes,

“The first thing I plan to do on my resurrected legs is to drop on grateful glorified knees, kneel quietly before the feet of Jesus and then I am going to be on my feet dancing.” She continues, “Can you imagine what hope [the resurrection] gives someone with a spinal cord injury like mine?”  

When Tishira Duffy clipped a family’s minivan while driving at 92 miles an hour, she killed Meg Abbott’s mom, dad and two brothers. Tishira is personally responsible for robbing a six year old girl of her entire family. How does Tishira deal with her personal fault and yet find hope?  

Unless there is a God who forgives, she never will. But if Jesus Christ really died for sinners, then Tishira may appropriately externalize her guilt to him. Jesus will take her blame and pay the penalty for her crime. But there is a catch. First, Tishira must take responsibility for her guilt (which resolves Dr. Seligman’s concerns). Admitting sin and asking for forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of hope with Jesus.  

The secret is out! Through empirical research, Dr. Seligman has stumbled onto truths Christianity has proclaimed for millennia. Jesus’ substitutional death and bodily resurrection provide an explanatory style capable of returning unexpectedly high “hope scores”  for people trapped by permanent and pervasive suffering — even when they’re personally to blame.

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