This evening, I encountered a soul-piercing question:
Is your vision of repentance more shaped by behavior management than by the becoming process?
Sometimes, we can be right and also have it all wrong.
Am I committed to being a rule-follower more than to being a Christ-follower? Am I living under the security of rules more than I am dwelling under the authority of the Spirit of God?
Once upon a time, I was a blatant and blind Pharisee. I was a legalistic hypocrite. I avoided all alcohol, all impure television, I refused to kiss boys, and I read my Bible and prayed every day. I was deeply comfortable in my puritan lifestyle. And I internally condemned everyone else in the world. I was better, holier, and more of a Christian. I refused to go to my senior English class when they showed “Schindler’s List” because it was rated R. I dumped several boys because they wanted to hold my hand. I checked off my Bible reading each day and read through the Bible for several years in a row. And I was so unbelievably sick, emotionally, spiritually, socially, and physically.
I wore my restrictions around my neck like medallions, as if they were Olympic gold medals. But my restrictions that hung around my neck did not make me dignified, pure, or identify me as an exemplary Christian. Instead, they strangled me and shackled me more securely in my prison of shame, self-hate, and a life of constant death: Not the good kind of dying to one’s self death, but the constant kind of dark, suffocating, stagnant death that threatens to consume us.
Today, decades later, and many chains lighter, my daily life looks similar to my life as a Pharisee. I read my Bible fervently and pray continuously. I still choose not to watch shows and movies that take my mind to places it has no business visiting. I choose not to drink, and I seek to avoid behaviors that are self-destructive or compromise my focus on Christ.
But my obedience is one that is initiated by complete freedom. “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery. ” (Galations 5:1).
The cool think about true conformity to the character of Christ (sanctification) is that now I desire to do the things that I once felt like I had to do. My heart is changing, which, as a result changes my behavior.
I was not free as a teenager. I did not even comprehend the concept of freedom. But I have come to taste the freedom of forgiveness, of pouring out my filth and shame before a merciful God who says, “I see you, I love you, and I forgive you.” As He said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11).
I now joyfully avoid behaviors that limit my knowledge of my Lord because my heart’s desire is to know Him more. I am free to sin, but in my freedom and in my experience with my Loving Father, I have less and less of a desire to sin. (This is sanctification). I choose a life that allows me to walk deeper in fellowship with my Lord. I do not feel restricted. The thought of restriction almost elicits within me a snort at its absurdity.
I am loved, chosen, and saved by grace, and I walk in the grace and forgiveness of our Lord Jesus Christ. I want to know Christ more because I have tasted and seen his goodness in the land of the living. “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? May it never be! Shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2).
I am now a slave to righteousness, not in the way that I was in bondage to legalism over two decades ago. But my slavery is one of sonship. Paul says that he uses the word slavery for lack of a better earthly term. What fellowship do I have with activities that result in death when I have tasted the fullness of life in relationship with the Living God? Life flows through my body, and my heart and soul thirst for the life-blood of the Son of God.
We are not under pressure to act, but we have been set free to act.
My life of Bible study, prayer, and abstinence from certain cultural norms is the opposite of my former life of empty, dry, legalism, but now is one of rich abundance and overwhelming treasure. While early in life I was steeped in self-aggrandizing arrogance in my self-driven restrictions as a Pharisee, my current position is one where God’s all-encompassing presence leads to perpetual forgetfulness of self: “Lord, you must increase, and I must decrease.” For I am learning that our best, richest, most meaningful moments in life are the ones when we most completely lose ourselves in light of the glory of God. For we are not called to think less of ourselves per se, but to simply think of ourselves less. This self-forgetfulness is easy when the glory of the most high God eclipses our vision.
And ultimately, in the presence of the Divine, we are drawn to rend our clothes with Isaiah and other Prophets, declaring, “Woe is me, for I am undone.”
Our pretenses must crumble in the presence of God in His glory.
Sometimes you can be right and still be terribly wrong.
Lord, Jesus, protect me from myself. Help me, in my moments of correctness, not to be dead wrong in my arrogance. Help me to always be humble before you, submitting all of my ideologies to the Lordship of Christ. I want to live under the authority of the Spirit, not under the security of rules. Make me a Christ-follower above a rule-follower.