If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. [1 John 1:8-10 (NLT)]

Last month, there were sentencing hearings for two politicians in a northern state. One pled guilty to bribery and the other pled guilty to wire fraud and money laundering. Even though both men abused their positions and betrayed the public’s trust, both of their lawyers argued that their clients’ crimes really weren’t that bad so they didn’t deserve time in jail. In direct reference to the crimes of a former governor of their state, one lawyer argued that wire fraud and money laundering were insignificant when compared to bribing government officials to get lucrative contracts, trying to buy a Senate seat, or shaking down hospitals to get campaign contributions. After the other lawyer pointed out how little money his client actually pocketed from his crime, he called his client’s bribery “a brief dalliance with corruption,” cast the blame on another corrupt official who encouraged him, and assured the court that his client wasn’t a bad person but just a “good person who made a mistake in judgment.”

Along with minimizing their clients’ crimes, both lawyers presented another similar argument in their attempts to keep them out of prison. Granted, these hearings took place in a state where four of the last eleven governors went to prison but they both contended that sentencing their clients to prison was pointless since prison sentences given to other corrupt politicians hadn’t stopped corruption. Claiming that preventing corruption with prison was futile, one lawyer compared it to trying to drain Lake Michigan with a spoon! I suspect the possibility of prison doesn’t deter most criminals simply because they don’t plan on getting caught! When committing their crimes, these politicians never expected having to face the consequences of their actions.

We are quick to highlight and own our victories but even quicker to downplay and disown our failures! When caught, like those politicians, we often try to deny responsibility, spread the blame, rationalize, and minimize our guilt.

In contrast, consider David. While he wasn’t perfect, we’d call him a good man. In fact, Scripture refers to him as a man after God’s heart because he did everything God wanted him to do. Of course, being human, he also did some things God didn’t want him to do! Like those politicians, this good man made some serious mistakes in judgment. Instead of fraud or bribery, he abused his power when he dallied with Bathsheba and arranged for Uriah’s death.

While crooked politicians may escape the arm of the law, let us remember that none of us can escape God! I’m sure David thought he’d gotten away with his sins by the time Nathan confronted him about a year later. In contrast to those politicians, however, David didn’t minimize them, compare them favorably with the sins of others, or attempt to evade their consequences! He didn’t blame Bathsheba by claiming she enticed him, Uriah for not sleeping with his wife, or Joab for putting Uriah in harm’s way. He simply admitted, “I have sinned against the Lord.” [2 Sam. 12:13] Although the Lord forgave him, the price David paid for his sins was steep. The child Bathsheba conceived in adultery died, three more of David’s sons died violent deaths, and his son Absalom claimed David’s throne by having relations with the king’s concubines publicly.

Regardless of what you call it, a sin is a sin and every sin separates us from God and deserves the death penalty. Fortunately, the blood of Christ and our heartfelt confession and repentance have commuted the sentence we so rightly deserve. Forgiveness, however, doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences. Let us learn from David—honestly confess our sins and accept their consequences without complaint.

Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins. Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin. For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night. Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. You will be proved right in what you say, and your judgment against me is just. [Psalm 51:1-4 (NLT)]

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Nobody can understand what God does here on earth. No matter how hard people try to understand it, they cannot. Even if wise people say they understand, they cannot; no one can really understand it. … I also saw something else here on earth: The fastest runner does not always win the race, the strongest soldier does not always win the battle, the wisest does not always have food, the smartest does not always become wealthy, and the talented one does not always receive praise. Time and chance happen to everyone.  [Ecclesiastes 8:17,9:11 (NCV)

Several years ago, author and apologist Lee Strobel commissioned a national survey asking people the one question they would pose to God if they could. As might be expected, the number one response was “Why is there suffering in the world?” Indeed, like Job, we want to know why, especially if the affliction directly affects us or the ones nearest and dearest to us. Why did he get Alzheimer’s? Why did she go into a coma? Why did his child get leukemia or hers have Down’s syndrome? Why was the surgery a failure? Why didn’t the driver stop? Why can’t I have children? Why was he at the wrong place at the wrong time? Why didn’t you stop the shooter from taking those children’s lives? Why couldn’t you save those who perished in that deadly tornado? Why do bad things happen to good people?

In reality, we already know the reason for pain and suffering since it’s found in Genesis. The world God created was a good one—one without misery and tragedy. Suffering entered the world when mankind abused their free will and sinned. That answer, however, just doesn’t seem adequate, especially since pain and affliction seem to hit randomly and unfairly. Logic tells us that the cruel and evil ones of the world should suffer more than the innocent but it rarely seems to work that way. The only sermons on this topic that made sense to me were the ones conceding that, while we’re in this world, the question of “Why?” will never be satisfactorily answered. Since Job asked God “Why” more than twenty times and never got an answer, an acceptable explanation for the suffering in this world isn’t likely. I suspect, however, that even if we knew the why of every terrible thing and how it all fit into God’s plan, we wouldn’t find the answer satisfactory. Like Job, our faith in God must be stronger that our need to know!

When the disciples passed by the man who’d been born blind, they wanted to know why he had no sight and they asked if it was it his sin or the sins of his parents that caused his blindness. Answering that it was neither, Jesus explained that it was part of God’s sovereign plan so that the power of God would be seen in him. Rather than a punishment or simply bad luck, the man’s suffering afforded an opportunity for Jesus to do God’s work in restoring the man’s sight. Jesus’ answer is about the best one we’re ever going to get while on this side of the grass. Perhaps, rather than asking God the reason for misfortune, pain, and anguish, we should be asking God how that suffering can be used to display His mighty work.

The real problem is not why some pious, humble, believing people suffer, but why some do not. [C. S. Lewis]

Jesus answered, “It is not this man’s sin or his parents’ sin that made him blind. This man was born blind so that God’s power could be shown in him.” [John 9:3 (NCV)]

I told you these things so that you can have peace in me. In this world you will have trouble, but be brave! I have defeated the world. [John 16:33 (NCV)]

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Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith. [2 Corinthians 13:5 (NLT)]

alliumHaving frequently been told by her elders, “If you get your reward on earth, you won’t get it in heaven!” a friend said it still remains difficult for her to accept praise or compliments. Her experience reminded me of my college roommate Marilyn who, like my friend, received large doses of guilt, shame, hellfire, and brimstone in her strict Christian upbringing. She reminded me of The Nun’s Story and Sister Luke who tried so hard to be a perfect nun who flawlessly kept her vows. But, even when Luke succeeded at following a rule of cloistered life, she repented of the pride she felt at her success. So afraid of inadvertently sinning, the nun even felt guilty when she caught a glimpse of her face reflected in a window! Like her, Marilyn kept taking her spiritual temperature and searching for some hidden transgression for which she should repent. If something was fun or entertaining, Marilyn was sure a hidden sin lurked in it. Both the fictional nun and coed became so focused on their real and imagined spiritual faults that they missed out on the joy of the Lord.

Most of us have regular check-ups at the doctor and routinely check for lumps or suspicious moles but, unless we’re hypochondriacs, we don’t do that every day nor do we take our temperature or check our blood pressure hourly. As Christians, we should look into our hearts and acknowledge the errors of our ways but we should be cautious of excessive self-analysis and soul searching. Hypochondriacs, whether medical or spiritual, focus on themselves which leave no room for anyone or anything else. When we brood about our real and imagined spiritual failings, our eyes are focused on ourselves rather than where they belong–on God! And, if our eyes aren’t on God, it’s pretty difficult to experience His joy or serve Him with gladness.

When we wallow in self-condemnation, we’re choosing the enemy’s gifts of shame and blame rather than God’s gifts of mercy and forgiveness. Rather than dissecting our lives and putting our every thought, word, and action under a microscope, it might be wiser to have a regular check-up of our spiritual health and progress in following Jesus. The following seven questions can help us do just that and it seems they can be asked without our becoming spiritual hypochondriacs. Originally posed by Pastor Colin Smith of the Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Illinois several years ago, they are the following:

Am I praying with faith?
Am I serving with zeal?
Am I believing with confidence?
Am I confessing with humility?
Am I worshipping with joy?
Am I giving with gladness?
Am I reaching out with love?

Great thoughts of your sin alone will drive you to despair; but great thoughts of Christ will pilot you into the haven of peace. [Charles Spurgeon]

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

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If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves. A claim like that is errant nonsense. On the other hand, if we admit our sins—make a clean breast of them—he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself. He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing. If we claim that we’ve never sinned, we out-and-out contradict God—make a liar out of him. A claim like that only shows off our ignorance of God. [1 John 1: 8-10 (MSG)]

white ibis - great egretThe church in which I was raised recited a general confession during each service and I sometimes wondered why we bothered to confess. I reasoned that, since God sees everything we do, He already knows what sinners we are and what sins we’ve committed so why bother to tell Him what He already knows? Eventually, I understood that, while God knows what we’ve done wrong, He wants us to know it, too. Until we repent, how can we be redeemed? Until we acknowledge our guilt, how can we be pardoned? We must admit why we need forgiveness before we can accept it.

If we haven’t killed anyone, stolen any property, cheated on our taxes, or committed adultery, it’s easy to think there’s nothing to confess. While we may enjoy a good meal, we’re not gluttonous and, while we may get annoyed, we’re never violent. We don’t covet our neighbors’ houses, spouses, or cars (except maybe that Maserati down the street). If we attend church regularly, read our Bibles, and call our mothers once a week, what do we have to confess? Unfortunately, plenty!

I don’t know about you but I have harbored bitterness and pride and allowed frustration to grow into anger. I’ve failed to forgive, not offered help when I should have, and gossiped. I have been envious of peoples’ beauty and talent. I’ve failed to give thanks in all circumstances and been needlessly anxious because I didn’t turn my problems over to God. I’ve held others to a higher standard than the one to which I hold myself. I’ve procrastinated, broken promises, and been selfish rather than generous. I’ve held back when I should have stepped forward and interfered when I should have stepped back. The Fruit of the Spirit has often gone missing from my tree. I’ve lost patience, temper and, at times, I’ve even lost my faith.

Without confessing our “little sins,” we easily become complacent and self-satisfied. We fool ourselves into thinking we’re “good enough” but merely “good enough” isn’t good enough for God. Worse, those mole-hill sins can easily grow into mountainous ones! Whether mole-hills or mountains, when our sins remain unacknowledged and unconfessed, they affect our relationship with Jesus.

In her oft-recited sonnet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote the words, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” I thought of her poem while writing this devotion. My poem, however, would begin, “How have I sinned against you? Let me count the ways!” Unlike her sonnet, however, my list would be over fourteen lines in length.

Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind In Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen. [Book of Common Prayer]

I’m ready to tell my story of failure, I’m no longer smug in my sin. [Psalm 38:18 (MSG)]

You can’t whitewash your sins and get by with it; you find mercy by admitting and leaving them. [Proverbs 28:13 (MSG)]

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No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. [Philippians 3:13-14 (NLT)]

I’m diggin’ up bones, I’m diggin’ up bones
Exhuming things that’s better left alone
I’m resurrecting memories of a love that’s dead and gone
Yeah tonight I’m sittin’ alone diggin’ up bones. [Randy Travis]

lotusI was listening to Randy Travis sing, “I’m diggin’ up bones, exhuming things that’s better left alone.” It seemed an appropriate song for this time of year when we tend to dwell on the past—not just past loves, but past losses, mistakes, oversights, misunderstandings, injuries and pain. As one year ends and another begins, we often dig up all the grievances, regrets, and ”if onlys” of our yesterdays.

The word Randy Travis uses is “exhuming” and that’s a powerful word. When we exhume something, we’re not just digging in the dirt for weeds or post holes—we’re digging a corpse out of its grave and that’s a gruesome ghoulish thought. Once a body is buried, it’s meant to be left undisturbed; that also goes for all those old memories of things dead and gone.

When we dig up the past, we’re trying to rewrite history. Even if we could have a do-over, we would do no better the second time; we’d just make different mistakes and still have regrets! From any time-travel novel or movie, we know that time-traveling is complicated; small changes in the past can have major, and often bad, ramifications. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly nearly erases himself when he accidentally becomes his mother’s high school romantic interest. In Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63, after the protagonist prevents JFK’s assassination, he sadly discovers that the world is worse off because of his actions. Moreover, it’s our history—all of those sad, terrible, painful, embarrassing, frightening, and distressing experiences, along with all the good ones—that make us who and what we are today. We’re us, not in spite of the past, but because of our past.

If we don’t like who or where we are in life, that’s not the past’s fault and it’s certainly not God’s. Tomorrow is the start of a brand new year and we can make a fresh start. The good thing about God’s mercy, love and forgiveness is that we don’t need to wait another 365 days before we can start fresh again. God specializes in fresh starts and we can begin anew any moment of any day. Each minute we waste digging up the bones of the past is a minute we’ve lost to the wonders of the here and now. The only moment we have is this one; let us use it wisely and leave the old bones (and memories) where they belong—dead and buried.

The only way to get rid of your past is to make a future out of it. [Phillips Brooks]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

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“Now go out to the street corners and invite everyone you see.” So the servants brought in everyone they could find, good and bad alike, and the banquet hall was filled with guests. [Matthew 22:9-10 (NLT)]

My in-laws were great ones for giving theme parties. When they hosted a “Backwards Party,” guests entered through the back door, wore their clothes backwards (which my mother-in-law admitted made it difficult for the men), and ate dessert before dinner. At another get-together, attendees came dressed as children, received jump ropes and jacks, pulled taffy, and played games like “Mother May I?” and “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.” My introduction to their parties was in 1966 when they turned their house into a Prohibition era speakeasy and guests needed a password to enter. Women dressed as flappers while the men wore fedoras, vests, and spats. Another party had the theme, “Come as You Wish You Had Been.” My mother-in-law, dressed in shorts with a whistle around her neck, came as the PE teacher she once dreamed of becoming and my father-in-law dressed as the train conductor he once aspired to be. Other attendees dressed as ballerinas, weight lifters, princesses, cowboys, or baseball players.

The one theme party they never hosted was “Come as You Are!” After all, no one wants to come as they are. If we can’t be someone else entirely, at least we want to be a better version of ourselves! If I were invited to a “Come as You Are” party, I know I would cheat. I’d change out of my yoga pants, tee, and Crocs into an outfit that would suggest my life is far more exciting than it really is. Then I’d put on make-up, touch up my nails, comb my hair, and spritz on perfume before leaving the house. Yet, “Come as you are!” is exactly how God invites us to come to Him.

We don’t have to be neat, clean or accomplished, nor do we have to repair what’s broken in our lives to accept the invitation to Jesus’ party. Our Lord didn’t invite the elite or influential to be his disciples; He invited twelve ordinary, uneducated, and imperfect men. He knew Peter was impulsive, John and James hot-tempered, Judas flawed, and Matthew a traitorous tax-collector. The woman at the well and the thief on the cross didn’t have to pretend to be anything but the sinners they were and neither do we! The blind, lame, adulterous, afflicted, possessed, soiled and corrupt—they all came to Jesus, not as the innocent children they once were nor as they once wished they could have been, but just as they were. It’s hard to believe that our perfect God could love and accept us, as imperfect and flawed as we are, but He does.

Although we can come to Him as we are, make no mistake about it, we won’t remain that way. We must shed the old us and put on the new in the same way that Saul, the self-righteous Pharisee, did when he became Paul, the Apostle. When we accept Jesus’ invitation to come as we are, He will make of us what we should be.

The church is not a select circle of the immaculate, but a home where the outcast may come in. It is not a palace with gate attendants and challenging sentinels along the entrance-ways holding off at arm’s-length the stranger, but rather a hospital where the broken-hearted may be healed, and where all the weary and troubled may find rest and take counsel together. [James H. Aughey]

Jesus answered them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” [Luke 5:31-32 (NLT)]

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. [Colossians 3:10-11 (NLT)]

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