If we say we have fellowship with him and yet keep on walking in the darkness, we are lying and not practicing the truth. But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. — 1 John 1:6–7
I took my first steps in the preschool hall of the church I attended as a child. Like many children of Christians in the 80’s, I was there “every time the doors were open” and I’ve been a believer “all my life.” Many have a similar story. We are the ones who feel like our testimony is lacking when placed beside those radical transformation stories which were popular in the same era. It could be easy to think we’ve never sinned. Of course, that’s not true.
In his book Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis crafts letter after letter from Uncle Screwtape to his protégé Wormwood—providing him with tactics to tempt his human away from the enemy—who is God. In one such letter, he writes, “You must bring him to a condition in which he can practice self-examination for an hour without discovering any of those facts about himself which are perfectly clear to anyone who has ever lived in the house with him or worked in the same office.”
Good, by Nature
In research conducted in 2020, “Two-thirds of Americans (65%) agree29 everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.”
It’s that “good by nature” which gives me pause. Are we good by nature? Do Christians believe they are “good by nature”? Sure, we quickly respond with Jeremiah’s words that the heart is wicked and sick (Jeremiah 17:9) but do we somehow believe ourselves immune to this diagnosis?
In his blog post titled, Telling the Truth About Ourselves, professor and pastor Wade Berry writes, “It turns out it is we ourselves who we most often deceive. Even as Christians, we seem to have a perverse skill at hiding, ignoring, or justifying our behavior. Even the most debased thoughts, even the cruelest actions, can land outside of our moral field of vision.”
The End of Our Noses
In the movie, Mary Poppins, Jane and Michael Banks excitedly look forward to a trip with their father to the bank—his place of employment. While singing to them about a bird lady who sits at the steps leading up to the bank, Poppins softly comments that many can’t see past the end of their noses. The next morning, on the way into the bank, the children point out the bird lady. “Do you see her, father?” they ask. With poetic irony, their father retorts. “Of course, I see the bird lady! Do you think I can’t see past the end of my nose?” But as the viewer knows all too well, the father has lost sight. He cannot see what is most important.
When it comes to our own sin, how many of us fail to see past the end of our noses? We do as John says in 1:8—we say we are without sin but, in reality, we deceive ourselves.
Missing the Point
As an undergraduate student. I participated in an informal poll my professor of New Testament Studies did on the first day of class regarding the gospels. He asked us to raise our hands if we were familiar with the gospels. Hands shot up all over the room. Then he asked how many had read the fourth gospel, the Book of John, from cover to cover. I started to raise my hand but could not. Had I? He continued to remark that the book of John is what we often encourage new believers to read first. His follow up remarks and lecture fade into my memory but the way I felt that day is etched deep down. I— a believer whom you recall took her first steps within the building of the church—had missed the point. For the next month, I spent every spare moment in the Book of John.
It’s been two decades since that moment in my New Testament class, but I wonder if it’s time you and I engage in a similar informal poll. We can all raise our hands in a chorus of agreement that “all have sinned (Romans 3:23)” We easily keep those hands raised as we affirm Jesus paid for sin “once for all (Romans 6:10).” We all nod in agreement that it was our sin which nailed Christ to the cross (Colossians 2:14). But if we are honest, we might be a little slower to raise our hands in rote response when we look introspectively within and ask: Do I really believe these words of 1 John about my present sin?
“If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.” —1 John 1:8–9
Who is the Boss of My Life?
Our Family Pastor explains salvation as “making Jesus the boss of your life.” When we confess our sins and declare our need for a Savior, we make Jesus our boss. We know this to be good theology because Paul writes in Romans that Jesus paid it all for us (Romans 5). Paul also reminds us that although we declare Jesus as our boss we often live as if sin is still the manager in charge (Romans 6, 7).
Might we take a moment to disregard our long tenure as believers—our titles as pastors, professors, and seminarians—and reflect for a moment of brutal honesty. Can I answer—with vulnerability—who actually is the boss of my life in this moment and consider I might have allowed sin to creep back in and take command? Can you?
Because if we do, we can walk out of the darkness and into the light and find fellowship with other believers— which is the topic of our next conversation.
For today, however, might we acknowledge we struggle as believers? That oftentimes we have moral failures, cover up our sin, and reduce the significance of our weaknesses? May we be bold enough to confess, as Lewis articulated, that we can spend an hour in reflection and miss what others so easily identify as sin in our lives? And, when we do, might we confess we have sinned even yet as we profess to follow Christ?
Might we with gratitude—and great relief—thank God that Jesus came, as Dane Ortland describes in his book, Gentle and Lowly, “to the cliff of the cross and didn’t change his mind. He walked over the edge.”
May we hold with tension our ability to sin and our knowledge of forgiveness. And fix our eyes on our advocate, Jesus, who walked over the edge for us—both for the sins of the past, the sins we’ve committed already today, and the sins we will likely commit before we lay our heads to rest tonight.
“Jesus paid it all. All to Him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain. He washed it white as snow.” —Elvina M. Hall