I feel hopeless and condemned when faced with my own failure and wrongs. Who doesn’t? It is reality, is it not? My failure to be set apart, my failure to guard my mind and fight against complacency and self-want.
As I was sweeping the kitchen floor this morning, reflecting on this feeling of ‘condemnation’ from my self-criticism, I caught myself in my pride element. Yes, pride. It was almost as if in a moment of simple revelation, God shone the light of his truth on it, and exposed it. Let me explain.
I realized that I only felt ‘condemned’ because in reality, I had begun relying again on my own righteousness and my own self-will to do things right. But look, its ever-evident, I cannot do right or be right by my own works or sheer will-power alone. If you disagree, it’s okay. But I know for sure, that I no matter how strong my will-power is, no matter how noble my external works or ambitions are, I will still fail to do what I know I ought to do. As the saying goes, ‘To know and not to do is not yet to know.’ But to be in the position to do right and not to do it because of your own self-centeredness is just as bad.
So I was reminded very simply that it all comes back down to returning to Jesus. He alone is my righteousness and salvation. There is actually now no condemnation in Christ Jesus, as Paul writes in the book of Romans. We are free when we place our faith in Him – we are truly free. This freedom gives us the power to overcome even our worst failures and sins and addictions, and it teaches us the freedom of giving our very lives back to God to serve others. The world tells us that this is a restriction, but I tell you, it is so, so not! It is a freedom that is beyond my imagining and best description. It is a freedom that must be lived and surrendered to. So there is no condemnation when we freely give our hearts back to the One who made it. I realized that often, feeling guilty does not at all mean that I am sorry. It means that I am relying again on my own ability to be righteous – which is contrary to being repentant (because real repentance leads to a decision to change and be transformed).
It is not enough to be self-critical; in fact, it is dangerous. It is not enough to be remorseful – guilt, on its own, is useless. But true repentance, leads us to a turn-around. By that, I mean a full turning away from our wrongdoing – starting with a clear choice made. Remorse without a decision to change or make things right, is utterly useless, self-indulgent, and actually dangerous. Guilt without a heart of humility and surrender is really a product of our own pride and reliance on self to be ‘good’.
If I try to find peace and rest in my own ability and goodness, I will never find it. I do not say this simply because I am some ‘religious’, pious Christian. I am far from an appeal to religiosity or legalism. I say this because I testify to the fact that I have never found peace nor rest in my own fine reasoning or ability to be good apart God’s grace. I’ve never found it out there or in myself. True rest and peace is found in Christ – not in what I have done, but what He has done for me, in spite of my falling short again and again.
Then God reminded me of John 15:2 in my thoughts. Jesus was telling his disciples, “He (God) cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” At the bottom margin of my Bible, there was a note that the Greek word for prune also means “cleans”. I realized that God was telling me that I am currently the branch that is undergoing ‘pruning’ or ‘cleansing’. It’s peculiarly true! I thought about all the great men of God over the centuries, and it always seems that they were being ‘afflicted’ by their failure, sins and inadequacy time and again. But you wonder how they can be struggling or persecuted even more when they had already done and sacrificed so much for others and their faith in God. Why did they have to go through even more suffering, discipline and persecution? I believe God was showing me that it was because they had already chosen to follow Him and do his will. Along the way, maybe they fell into pride and reliance on themselves again. That’s why they felt condemnation, fear, guilt or inadequacy. But it is precisely this, that makes them turn back to God, who once again strengthens them and shows them limitless patience and grace. They may be going through the worst of times for the sake of their faith, and yet they could still be aware of their cowardice, selfishness or pride. It’s amazing. Other people who are having a much more complacent Christian life would look at these guys and wonder, “They are already sacrificing so much to serve God, how can they even say that they are struggling with pride or selfishness or lust? They are already doing so much good!”
You know why? It is because they are aware. The deeper you devote yourself to God’s purposes for you, the more you will be aware of your shortcomings. Sometimes it will be because you have become proud of your own righteousness. But once again, you will find no rest if you do not rest your confidence and your work in Christ alone. So it’s a constant cycle of ‘coming back’ to God. It may be a ‘thorn in the flesh’ as Paul called it. But at the same time, it is perhaps the very weakness that draws us back to God and His saving, amazing grace.
So the more that you are ‘bearing fruit’, or producing results in your ministry, your work, your reaching out to people, the more God desires to ‘prune’ you and refine your character – so that you will be even more fruitful. Such refinement and discipline may not be pleasant at the time, because it humbles us, teaches us, calls for change, and makes us aware of the dangers and conceit within ourselves – but in the end it is actually a gift, a privilege, a blessing. Without it, I wouldn’t grow in character, in faith, in love. Precisely because you are already bearing fruit, abiding in Christ; precisely because you are already doing it and surrendering to God despite your weaknesses – God can refine you, expose your faulty thinking, prideful boasting, cowardly living, or self-reliance, quite easily and quickly. It is those who are not surrendering their hearts to God who will not even realize the very things that are destroying them.
Once you realize that your feeling of guilt or condemnation is not from God, but from your own self-reliance, self-righteousness and the devil’s lie that you are not loved by God – then you are liberated by the Truth. The Truth that you are loved by God through Jesus Christ; that you do not need to run or hide from him – at all. The Truth that you are His precious son and daughter, that the spirit of God resides in you, that God disciplines those who loves, that he wants to use you to produce a harvest of righteousness and peace, and that you can fight again by the Spirit and the Word of truth – because God has given you a new day to live for him, and for his glory and purpose. You can renew your spirit and let God redeem your mind and heart again. You can run to God. The truth will bring you into the light and love of Christ – it will set you truly, truly free!
Oh, joy. What unspeakable joy.
J a n i e ll e