Thursday, February 28, 2008

Resting In Forgiveness

What do you do when you feel stagnant spiritually?

A couple of days ago a friend of mine shared some struggles with me in an email, and with his permission I thought I would share those and my response to him for your own personal encouragement:

Paul, … I’m struggling with learning more and more about God's holiness, seeing more and more of his sinfulness, and then, in my own power, trying to change, and then failing, and then turning to sin (lust, food, laziness, etc...) for comfort. … When I ask God to forgive me and I ask for and try to repent, I don't see/feel/believe/know the forgiveness that has been given. I am not resting in God's forgiveness, I don't try to grow in His strength, I'm not sure how to do that. I know it in my mind, but I don't know it in my heart. I seem to be stuck in this spot, and I think I have been for awhile, but am now starting to realize it.

It was so encouraging to see his honest transparency! I completely understand and identify with his struggles. Lately, I have felt like the busyness of the holidays and the craziness of the move have sidetracked me. The reality is—that previous sentence is blame-shifting in disguise. More accurately it should be worded: I have pursued the busyness of the holidays and focused more on the craziness of the move than on the cross of Christ and applying His gospel to my life.

Occasionally I go through funks where I don’t have the accompanying emotions that normally go along with my private worship or even public worship. I typically press on through them telling myself that “it’s a phase” and the emotions will return—just keep doing what you’re doing. And to some degree that is usually true. As I thought over my friend’s email and asked God to give me an encouraging word for him, I have realized that in these “phase” moments I should think about the root causes of why the emotions aren’t there. I know that emotions result from the affections of my heart and the affections my heart stem from what I know and believe. So I ask myself, what is it then, that of late I have been knowing and believing that would result in loving things other than the God Himself that would result in feeling distant from Him?

Part of the “problem” has been that over the last week I have seen more and more of my own sinfulness as I have been reading a book that Audrea gave me for Valentine’s Day: A Gospel Primer for Christians: Learning to See the Glories of God’s Love. Check out what Milton Vincent has to say about the effect of exposing ourselves to the Gospel on a daily basis:

It was while rehearsing gospel truths in Romans 5-8 that the Apostle Paul was moved to speak of his struggle with sin and exclaim, “O wretched man that I am!” While reviewing God’s abundant saving grace on another occasion, Paul was prompted to confess that he was “the foremost” sinner of all.

Likewise, the deeper I go into the gospel, the more I comprehend and confess aloud the depth of my sinfulness. A gruesome death like the one that Christ endured for me would only be required for one who is exceedingly sinful and unable to appease a holy God. Consequently, whenever I consider the necessity and manner of His death, along with the love and selflessness behind it, I am laid bare and utterly exposed for the sinner I am.

My problem is that I have often stopped at this point in realizing the depth of my depravity and the infinite deservingness of punishment. Wallowing in this state results only in a muddier pig. If I stop short of the Gospel, I actually will tend to go back into the mire more, not with the mindset of antinomianism, but simply choosing not to focus on the reality of my union with Christ. Vincent continues though and describes what happens when we don’t stop short:

Such an awareness of my sinfulness does not drag me down, but actually serves to lift me up by magnifying my appreciation of God’s forgiving grace in my life. And the more I appreciate the magnitude of God’s forgiveness of my sins, the more I love Him and delight to show Him love through heart-felt expressions of worship.

So I’ve seen that a focus on the Gospel applied to me has a direct correlation to the my affections and my ability to communicate those affections in my own private worship and my ability to participate in public worship. As I am overwhelmed with the breadth and depth of my sin and its infinite character, and then counter that with the breadth and depth of Christ’s righteousness and its infinite character applied to me not by any merit of my own (obviously), my affections begin to change dramatically. The resulting effect is that since I am loving God more and more for what He has done for me through His Son, my love for the things of the world (the lust of the eyes, the pride of life, etc.) becomes less and less.

I want to encourage all of you to keep on fighting in your pursuit of holiness. The effect of learning about your sinfulness and God’s holiness can be depressing, but it can also be joy-producing. It’s funny that what my friend said he is not doing (“I am not resting in God’s forgiveness”) is exactly what Vincent earlier in his little book says to do:

The gospel encourages me to rest in my righteous standing with God, a standing which Christ Himself has accomplished and always maintains for me. I never have to do a moment’s labor to gain or maintain my justified status before God! Freed from the burden of such a task, I now can put my energies into enjoying God, pursuing holiness and ministering God’s amazing grace to others.

The gospel also reminds me that my righteous standing with God always holds firm regardless of my performance, because my standing is based solely on the work of Jesus and not mine. On my worst days of sin and failure, the gospel encourages me with God’s unrelenting grace toward me. On my best days of victory and usefulness, the gospel keeps me relating to God solely on the basis of Jesus’ righteousness and not mine.

May God continue to grant you the grace to rest in Him more and more!

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