Today I continue my series in which I thank God for the final four things in the Apostles’ Creed, each of which has meant something special to me this year.
Part 1: Then
How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered!
How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit!
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that God forgives sins. From a very early age, I realized that I was a sinner who needed a savior, and that the savior was Jesus Christ. I knew that if I said, “I’m sorry. Forgive me,” He would make me clean.
The full internalization of that truth was another matter. Growing up, I was told most of the right things and did most of the right things. I put my faith in Jesus for salvation, was baptized at a young age, had nearly perfect church attendance, and spent the rest of the week at a Christian school. I knew for certain that I could not earn salvation by works, and that I must trust completely in the sacrifice of Christ. Even so, I never felt like I was one of the really good Christians: the people who closed their eyes when they sang, read the Bible constantly, led people to Christ, and went off to become pastors and missionaries. I did not have the same kind of emotional swells.
As such, I often doubted. I knew that salvation was by faith, but did I have enough faith? After all, I had moments when I doubted certain things. I didn’t feel anything supernatural when I prayed. Did real Christians have these issues? How could I know that there was actually a God there? The good Christians seemed to get some kind of message or spiritual sensation during prayer time. I was honestly worried that I might subconsciously be an atheist. Then one day it occurred to me that if I was afraid that I might not believe in God’s existence, I probably believed in God’s existence. Who fears a God that doesn’t exist?
Even when I had mostly gotten over that issue, I was not at all convinced that God looked on me favorably. I just didn’t seem as good as those other Christians. My father was a prominent lay leader in our church. In comparison, I felt very average and not “on fire” for God. Somewhere along the way, a well-meaning person told me that even though God had forgiven all our sins when we were saved, any new sins in our life must be confessed before God would listen to our prayers. From that point on, I always began every prayer by saying, “Please forgive me for my sins.” A pastor mentioned the verse in Psalms where David says, “Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults.” (Psalm 19:12) I began confessing hidden sins as well—that is, those I didn’t even know existed.
You would think that under such circumstances I might have quickly signed up for every spiritual activity and read every Christian book under the sun, desperately hoping to improve my standing. No, I did not. Why? Because I was caught in a kind of Catch-22. I had been led to believe that things done purely out of duty were rather pointless. Going to church was of little value if you didn’t really love the experience in your heart. Givers ought to be cheerful. Those who changed diapers in the nursery ought not do so begrudgingly. So when the youth group was going to take a survival excursion for five days near leech infested waters, and it was presented to me as an opportunity for spiritual growth (the kind of thing a good Christian would do, no doubt), I thought to myself, “A week living off canned food and waking up covered in dew sounds terrible.” I think my parents were a bit disappointed that I didn’t participate more with the youth group, but I simply took little joy in it. I was shy and many of those activities seemed to focus on doing something daring. I often stayed home and thought myself a terrible person, but then again, I wouldn’t have gained any brownie points with God anyway if I had been grumpy the whole time.
Never once did I imagine that when I got to heaven God would say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I was fully expecting, “Ok, I’ll let you in…” Please don’t misunderstand: no one around me suggested that I ought to feel this way. I heard a lot more about the love of God on any given day than I did about His judgment. People would talk about conversion and that moment of embracing Christ in faith, inviting Him to become the Lord of your life. (Of course, I hadn’t had a very memorable conversion at three years old.) I was told that it wasn’t about what I did, but what Christ did. When God looked at me, He saw Christ. None of this was particularly theologically robust, but it would have been enough for most people. Unfortunately, I was not most people. Thus, I continued along fairly certain that I was saved and God loved me, but equally uncertain that God liked me.
Shortly after I started attending a Christian college, I was hit with a very bad spell of depression and anxiety. I began seeing a particularly good Christian counselor on campus, and he asked me an important question: “Do you see God as primarily loving or judging?” I knew the correct answer was “both” or “equal”. Yet I answered “judging” without hesitation, for that was how I usually felt in my relationship with God. I was mentally cowering before Him like a serf, not sitting on His lap like a daughter.
I still felt like my faith must be weak. Other people got such miraculous answers to prayer and even special messages from God. Was something wrong with me? I thank God for the fellow student who told me that the head of our Bible department had only possibly heard a word from God once. Still, I felt like there must be too much sin in my life. Maybe I wasn’t doing really bad things, but I clearly wasn’t doing enough good things. And what of loving God? Did I really love God enough? How could I if I was somewhat afraid of Him?
As a monk, Martin Luther often wrestled with such doubts. He would return to confession again and again, always convinced that he had missed something. His confessors attempted to grant him peace by telling him that the most important thing was simply to love God. Yet Luther found it difficult to love a God of such powerful wrath and judgment, who hardened hearts and sent men to Hell. Can one ever feel comfort in the midst of a consuming fire? Luther later described his thoughts during that period: “I was myself more than once drive to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!”
You see, even as Luther became obsessed with his own sinfulness, there has always been a part of me that is a bit self-flagellating. In medieval times, I don’t think I would have lined up for the nunnery—I probably would have seen it as a futile effort. Nevertheless, I entirely understand why those people did what they did, and why some still do. The urge to prove faith by works—to know that God looks on you with favor—is powerful indeed. However, it’s a losing battle. As my current pastor preached on Reformation Day this year, “The answer to the question ‘How much is enough?’ is always ‘Just a bit more.’”
The good news is that, beginning with my experiences in college that led me into more serious study of the Word of God, I was gradually drawn into a better understanding of various spiritual truths. I struggled less with doubts, although they did not disappear entirely. I still didn’t feel like a particularly good Christian, but I began to understand that the Christian life is less about feelings and more about facts. I was not righteous because I felt righteous, but because God had made me righteous in Christ.
I was on the road to “there”, and yet I was not there yet. It was only as I entered my late 20s and read some of the works of Martin Luther for the first time that the pieces really started falling into place. The one line in Luther’s writings that absolutely knocked my socks off was his final thesis for the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation: “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.” Perhaps I had heard something like that before, but when I was confronted by those words at that moment in time, my heart was evidently ready to receive them. I say that it was The Bondage of the Will that finally convinced me of the doctrines known as T.U.L.I.P., but in a sense I was already won over by that single line from the Heidelberg Disputation.
The other thing that had a significantly positive impact on me was the Reformed understanding of union with Christ. In this view of salvation, we are bound to Christ, becoming one with His very flesh in blood. Through this union, we have the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, we are justified before God, our spirit is regenerated, and we are set upon the path of sanctification on which we are certain to persevere. All of this helped me to see that faith is certainly necessary for salvation, for it is the instrument of all. However, faith is not about working up some kind of emotional response within myself. Emotions come and go. True faith is the gift of God.
When I was in AWANA as a child, I was required to memorize Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (NKJV, the version in which I learned it) I was told, “This means that you are not saved by works,” and that was true. However, it was only upon reading those verses two decades later that I caught the fact that not only grace was the gift of God, but faith as well. Jesus Christ is “the author and perfecter of faith”. (Hebrews 12:2) This realization has been so beneficial for me. I no longer lose sleep wondering if my faith is strong enough to merit salvation, as I sometimes did when I was young. Salvation is not simply about having sins forgiven, though it is certainly about that. We are justified by Christ’s perfect obedience. I have a greater and better assurance now that rests upon that work of Christ rather than anything in myself. If you focus exclusively on the forgiveness aspect at the expense of the imputed righteousness, you will eventually experience a lack of assurance, even as I did.
Part 2: Now
I said at the beginning that forgiveness has been especially significant for me in 2017. Here I experience a bit more difficulty in writing. Most of you know that I have been struggling with ongoing medical difficulties that have left me continually exhausted and in varying degrees of pain. I have talked a bit about the emotional difficulties that have come from that. What I have not spoken about to more than a few people is the fact that, as the year has worn on, I have struggled with intense feelings of guilt such as I have seldom faced in my life.
I began 2017 feeling as good spiritually as I ever had. I was learning so much about the truths of scripture. I was starting to write more and more for the Church. It seemed like my efforts were producing some good results here and there. I was happy to be involved in the life of my local church in addition to my writing activities. However, as my illness took hold, I began to feel inadequate in many ways. My inability to perform certain domestic duties made me feel like a bad wife. My inability to volunteer at or sometimes even attend church seemed like inadequacy as well. Then there was the chorus of critics online who leapt upon any slight doctrinal difference or minor misstep to judge and cast aspersions.
I had experienced criticism related to my writing at earlier points in my life. While I am naturally quite sensitive to the words of others, I have slowly developed a thicker skin. Under normal circumstances, the kind of emotional blows I have taken this year might not have left much of a mark. However, as I began to wear down physically, I wore down in other ways as well.
Slowly but surely, guilt crept into several areas of my life. I was not doubting my salvation, but I was certainly doubting whether or not I was a “good person” or a “good Christian”. I was painfully aware of my own sinfulness, even though I had not committed any truly grave sins. When my husband complained that I was talking to people on Twitter one evening rather than paying attention to him—therefore placing them above him—I responded with as much guilt as if I had done something adulterous. (As a female who runs in male-dominated circles, the fear of being perceived as flirtatious is very real, and it can cause you to question many of your interactions.)
My inadequacies started to pile one upon the other. I felt like a fraud and a failure in equal measures. It seemed hypocritical to discuss theological matters, write about Christian topics, or attend church. Yes, even on the occasions when I made it to church, I spent half the time obsessing over my guilt. “What would people think if they knew how bad I was?” I thought. The guilt had become a kind of mental tic.
I do not exaggerate when I say that this sometimes got to the point where I was losing my appetite, unable to focus on tasks, and laying awake at 3 a.m. in tears. The pain in my body and the pain in my soul seemed to fuse into one overwhelming darkness. I felt guilty for what I believed was hurting my marriage…and then the guilt itself hurt my marriage. I felt like a fraud embracing my husband when I was such a bad wife. Even though I felt all of this, I did not tell anyone. I sensed that whatever sins I did have, they were not severe enough to justify the amount of guilt I was carrying. I was ashamed for being sinful, but I was also ashamed for being so ashamed. “I shouldn’t be struggling so much. I ought to be trusting in God’s forgiveness,” I thought.
One of those nights that I was awake in both physical and emotional pain, I typed some of the saddest lines I have ever written. “Today, I feel that I am a failure as a wife, a failure as a Christian, and a failure as a woman…Over the course of this year, I have been forced to bear much illness, and that has pushed me to the emotional breaking point. Yet this guilt is something else and I feel I cannot bear it. I know I am God’s child, but I do not feel close to Him, and I fear His judgment.” I was convinced in that moment that neither my husband nor God was very pleased with me.
When I returned to bed still crying, my husband woke and asked me what was wrong. I simply let him read what I had written. He was rather shocked and dismayed, but he said something that was very important: “I don’t think this is from the Lord. I think this is the accuser.” It was around this time that, at one of my many doctor’s appointments, they gave me a questionnaire screening for depression. One of those questions asked if I had been experiencing strong feelings of guilt. This was when I started to realize that my battle with pain and fatigue was taking its toll on my ability to evaluate my own actions properly. I was not going insane by any means, but I was viewing things through a very negative lens. My neurologist told me I most likely have fibromyalgia, which is known to produce symptoms similar to depression in addition to chronic nerve pain, headaches, and sleep disturbances. (No, I don’t have a confirmed diagnosis. This is just a working theory.)
I timidly told a few people—no more than I can count on one hand—that I was struggling with guilt. I had already asked for and received forgiveness for the sins and/or mistakes that troubled me. There was no question that I was repentant. I was simply finding it very difficult to rest in the knowledge of my forgiveness. Around this time, I also received an email from a pastor whose name you would know if I shared it. He asked how I was doing, and for whatever reason, I found it possible to tell him about my struggle with guilt when I couldn’t speak of it with others. His conclusion was that I was quite possibly experiencing a form of spiritual warfare, and I think he might have been right.
It is certainly true that those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit receive the convicting influence of that Spirit as He illumines us to see God’s truth. However, guilt that remains after one has genuinely repented is not healthy. Even as sin can cause harm in our relationships with God and others, a hypersensitivity to and obsession over sin can cause equal harm. I have come to see that more fully this year. Is the devil himself actively accusing me? Perhaps not. However, it is rather amazing how often the brethren can become accusers of the brethren.
Once again, this is not to say that there is no rightful place for calling sin to account, but when one acknowledges that sin in humility, strives to put it to death, receives the forgiveness of all involved, and still feels crushed by guilt…this is not the state of affairs intended by God. Obsessing over the potentially sinful motivation behind every thought and word can take a real toll on a person and make it hard for them to be open with anyone. Again, I am not talking about proper conviction, but obsession—a pattern of negative thought.
By the grace of God, I have experienced some deliverance from this guilt. However, I still struggle, and thanks to my illness, I will likely face a continuing battle to maintain a positive frame of mind. I have noticed that the days when I feel worse physically often coincide with when I feel worse emotionally. Perhaps it is a chicken and egg situation—I’m not sure. I do believe that I can gain victory in Christ. It is my union with Him that allows me to have righteousness credited to my account. While I must certainly reject the temptations of the flesh and listen to the urgings of the Spirit, there is an important sense in which I am already sanctified, for I have the righteousness of Christ.
I may go through my entire life without feeling that I am a “good Christian”. My Twitter profile proclaims that I am a “Christian undergoing sanctification”. There I am now, and there I shall remain until glory. I am encouraged by the words of the Apostle Paul. “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:15-16)
I freely admit that I am not a perfect person. Indeed, in my flesh, I am a terribly bad person—evil, wicked, bent upon selfishness, and rotten to the core. I commit far more sins than I would care to admit. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because I write about Christianity, I must be a perfect Christian. It is only the mercy of God that separates me from any other sinner who is now or ever has been. It was because He loved me before the foundation of the world that He chose me to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ, to the praise of His glory. As Paul also wrote, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain…” (1 Corinthians 15:10a)
The forgiveness of God is such a wonderful thing to be thankful for every year, but for me, it is especially meaningful this year. Forgiveness is the reason I can get out of bed in the morning, even as my muscles scream at me. Pain is terrible, but the one who is forgiven experiences freedom from guilt and lays their burden at the foot of the cross. I am eternally grateful for this gift of God which I do not deserve in any way, shape, or form. I pray that He will continue to grant me freedom, even as my mind and body are put through this period of trial.
If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
1 John 1:8-2:2
If you are wondering how to act around me in light of all this, the answer is, “Exactly as you have been, unless you were being a jerk, in which case you should probably just stop that in general.” I don’t want anyone to feel like they are walking on eggshells around me. I have attempted to limit my discussion of these issues for that very reason. Part of me would prefer to be thought of without any frailties, but you might as well know that I’m a real person with real problems. I don’t mind it when people give me a hard time, as long as it doesn’t become mean spirited or accusatory in some sort of personal way.
What I would request is that you pray for me. I continue to suffer from negative thought patterns that make normal life difficult. (Well, it was already difficult, but they just increase the difficulty.) I do not know for certain if this is a recurrence of my anxiety, a new bout of depression, or simply a side effect of whatever is ailing my body, whether fibromyalgia or something else. It is possible that the enemy is also pressing on me in some way, although it sounds rather self-important to say so. Maybe it is none of those things. Please just pray that God will grant me relief on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. I thank you so much for your continued support.
P.S. Please refrain from offering medical advice in response to this article. I assure you I am in good hands and we are considering all possibilities. I know the impulse to help is a good one, but I receive so many different medical theories, and it gets a bit tiring. Thank you. I hope that does not sound harsh.
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright the Lockman Foundation.
 Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), pgs. 40-44.