Step 7. Embrace the belief that we are, and will always be, experts at sinning.
Ever notice that when we talk about sin and sinners, we are usually referring to someone else’s and someone else? There is an underlying assumption that when we become Christians we stop sinning. Certainly we are not habitual sinners. Oh, we might slip into some old habit now and then but for the most part we are on the straight and narrow.
On the contrary, I think it’s more that becoming a Christian makes us more aware of our sin as we become more spiritually conscious. We begin to see things we didn’t even know we were doing. We become sensitive to the Spirit, and the Spirit makes us aware of the areas in our life needing improvement. Dealing with sin in our lives is like peeling an onion — the deeper we go, the deeper it goes, the more it makes us cry. But that also uncovers more of God’s grace and forgiveness to go on.
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance,” Paul wrote to Timothy. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15&16). Paul chose to exemplify himself in this manner so that other sinners might have hope. If Christ would have patience with Paul — the worst of sinners — then no sinner can claim to be outside the reach of God’s grace.
These are truly unusual bragging rights. In essence, Paul is saying he has more sin than anyone so no one can have any legitimate reason not to believe in the forgiveness of God. How could we ever possibly think it would be any different for us? This is our leader, the founder of our faith, the builder of the church. This is the guy we follow whenever we read one of his letters, and here he is telling us he is the worst of sinners.
This, then, is our witness as well — not how great we are, but how great God is, and how far He has reached to find us and save us. How low can He Go? Well, the cross took Him to the bottom. You can never outsmart the grace of God. You can never out-sin His forgiveness.
And so we keep peeling the onion and keep being overwhelmed at the depth and the riches of God’s grace. This is not the witness of a Pharisee, but of a saved sinner — a recovering Pharisee, if you will — a sinner in spite of all the great things I want you to think about me. A recovering Pharisee — a scoundrel in spite of the spiritual pedigree I want you to know about me. A recovering Pharisee — a testament to how low God’s grace will go, not how righteous I can get.
And so, I leave you today with the recovering Pharisee’s creed. Read it over a few times; put it on your refrigerator; refer to it often. It will help keep you from being a Pharisee. God knows we don’t need any more of them.
The Recovering Pharisee’s Creed
When I speak of sin, I will no longer talk of it as something in my distant past. When I speak of forgiveness, I will not speak of it as something I received years ago when I became a Christian. I will speak of the sin and forgiveness I experienced today — indeed that I am experiencing right now — that enables me to be human and be real and truthful with who I am and who I am becoming. And when conversation turns to talk of sinners I will realize that the conversation is really about me. I will always know that I am the worst sinner I know of. I put Jesus on the cross; my sin nailed him there. And if I ever catch myself thinking that there exists, somewhere in the world, a worse sinner than I, regardless of the gravity of the crime, it is at that point that I have stepped over the pharisaical line and am speaking about something of which I know nothing. When it comes to sin, I can speak only of myself with absolute certainty, and in regards to myself and sin, I am certain that I am an expert. The remarkable thing is not that I sin, but that, in spite of my sin, I am capable of having fellowship with God and being used by Him for His purposes in the world.
Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Corinthians 10:12)
The following questions are for your own reflection and discussion with others:
Step 7: Embrace the belief that we are, and will always, be experts at sinning.
- Why is it so damaging to both leaders and followers alike to live in an atmosphere of denial? Why do we wish to live in a structured and ranked hierarchy rather than in a community of fellowship and equality?
- What are the inevitable messages we send to our struggling fellow believers and also to non-Christians when we claim we are completely victorious over sin?
- If we are relying on ourselves to “get us through,” have we experienced God’s grace? Is it possible to truly encounter God’s grace but choose to reject it or to supplement it with human effort? What can we learn from the Galatians about the deception of works-righteousness?
- Is the experience of confession and forgiveness as fresh in your life as it was at your conversion? If not, do you believe that it can be?
- Does the discovery of more sin in our lives mean we are regressing? How can intimacy with God and fellowship with others be compatible with a constant and growing awareness of sin?