Tag Archives: sin

Is Circle of Hope “soft on sin?”

I was having a very nice stuffed chicken breast out in the burbs with two of my oldest friends on Saturday night and the subject turned to sin. Specifically, it turned to the gossip my friend had heard that Circle of Hope is “soft on sin.” I think I said, “Are you serious? That is still going around? You heard that?”

One time, a long time ago I think, one of the pastors at one of the Presby plants (purportedly) warned his people that Circle of Hope was soft on sin. People have been warning others about us ever since. The word came full circle to me over a nice dinner and my dear friend knew the source.

So our church has two reputations going around. If you look us up on Google, we look like we are hard on sin, since a loosely-connected slanderer unjustly tried to take us down in the City Paper one time (before it folded under its own weight of spurious reporting) for being hard on certain sins which are popular targets for legalistic Christians. Wasn’t true. But if you run into us in the Christian gossip mill, we apparently look like we are soft on sin, since they know of many instances when we have embraced people before they believed and they know we include people before they are moral. We work things out, not cut things off; we travel with people along their way, and don’t tell them they can join us when they get on our correct path. They are right about what we do, but they are wrong about what it means.

So I want to say a few things about our reputation, particularly about being “soft on sin.”

1) For one huge thing, what does “soft on sin” even mean?

What Christian ever had a call from God to be “hard” on sin?  And what person is not already hard on themselves because of their sin, even before some Christian tells them they are bad? Donald Trump acts like he is hard on sin, even as he is sinning! — but he apparently has a personality disorder.

If there is a sin the Bible calls us to be “hard” on it is probably the sin of presuming we can judge the righteousness of others! Paul says he does not even judge himself; and Jesus says to leave judgment to God. I think we are hard on the sin of being hard on sinners, such as ourselves. So, in the minds of some, that might make us “soft.“

did sin cause the division?2) Do Christians really have to compare one another?

Christians seem to treat each other like rival fast food franchises, don’t they? — “our righteousness is better quality, unlike those other people!” I wish it were not so. Comparisons are odious. It is not always easy, but I try to stay positive about the Christians who are not in my “camp.” There is often a particular genius I can admire. Presbyterians are stuck in their cave-in to modernism, but they are often great Bible teachers. The Pope fronts some of the greatest heresies ever normalized, but Catholics have a great system to teach contemplative prayer. Even though Ted Cruz grew up in one of the scariest fringe groups ever, I hear he is a pretty great husband. Much of the time the Brethren in Christ don’t know what to do with us, but our denomination’s historical synthesis is still theologically and practically brilliant.

But do any of the growing number of unbelievers in the United States care about the boundaries between the many variations of Christians? The ones I’ve met who know about them largely cite the differences as a good reason not to get involved with us.

3) Actually, we are very adept at dealing with sin.

One of our proverbs warns us: “Everyone is recovering from the sin addiction; expect conflict.” We are not afraid we will be tainted by sin because someone is sinning; we accept that everyone is bringing their version of sinfulness with them. There will be problems. Like Jesus in the wilderness, we are all in our process, being tempted and coming to our fullness through the struggle. We are conflicted inside, and the whole church has a tendency to fight because sin is at work in us.

Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.But as the scripture goes on to say, the Spirit of God is also at work in us because Jesus has saved us. If some folks want to protect themselves from the “liberals” over at Circle of Hope, it will be a delusional task, since they are already infected with sin and their judgment demonstrates the fact. Likewise, if Circle of Hope people (like me) get super angry and self-righteous over the supposed attacks from people they have not met and sources they have not verified, then they will, likewise, be demonstrating how broken they really are. If any of us falls to following a new law or relying on our manuals of proper behavior, we will miss the freedom of forgiveness by which Paul goes on to say: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2). Some people thought Paul was “soft on sin” because he taught the truth of the gospel like that. Not so.

I hope I can get the same kind of criticism as Paul, now and then. It makes me feel like we are doing something worth noticing; so it is affirming in a back-handed way. This weekend, it was just rumors that I had heard before. I can hardly call a criticism based on hearsay an actual criticism, can I? It’s like an insult-once-removed. When I meet up with the slanderer in the age to come, we can work it all out with joy. Until then, I hope to be as “soft on sin” as the One who shared mine, died to undo it, and raised me to walk around consciously wounded by it but also transcendent.

For those too broken to eat the bread and drink from the cup.

This Wednesday we begin the season of Lent. Some of us long for Ash Wednesday all year, this is for those who don’t.

Even though the discipline of imitating Christ’s 40-day fast is an old one, each year it is new, as well. Because each year we are called out into the wilderness as a year-different person than we were the previous year: a year wiser or a year weaker, a year more mature or a year more undone.

As a new person who is the “I am” we are right now,
we are called out to meet the “I am” who is God.

We go in search of our true selves as we meet the one who makes us new and whole in a whole new way.

light in clearing

Every year we gather around the communion table to share the Lord’s death so we can share in his resurrection. It is just as mysterious as Paul describes it to the Philippians in the letter to them:

“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

When Jesus, the great “I am,” welcomes us to the table, some of us will not want to go. This post is for you.  

Continue reading For those too broken to eat the bread and drink from the cup.

Redux #8 — Is God going to punish me?

At the beginning of the year I want to repost “top ten” posts. On Friday, I’m reminding people about some posts before 2014 that people have kept reading — there is a “top ten” of them! Here is #8

In October of 2012 I tried to convince people that they were not condemned just because they feel condemnable.

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You are not condemned yet.

In God we live and move and have our being. God might be holding on to us by the slenderest of threads, but he is holding on. God wants us to live, not die. I think the last thing God wants is for us to live in fear of him dropping us into hell.

Yet we still wonder if we are about ready to be dropped. “Is God going to punish me?” — that is not a dumb question if you are a Bible reader. The Bible seems to plainly say that he is going to do just that:  “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9). In other translations, “he will punish” is translated “he will take revenge.” The root idea has to do with working out justice. Justice is going to be done. At the end of days, those who have turned away from God will be sent the direction they are facing forever. So yes, you could definitely call that punishment. God is going to punish us if we refuse to relate to him and we work out death instead of life.

We are not being punished for our sins right now, however. That’s not going to happen until time is up — and it is not up, yet. There is a difference between the punishment described in 2 Thessalonians and our Father responding to the consequences of our choices right now. There is a final judgment that will bring things to right. But God is forestalling that day and that punishment. What we experience now is his loving discipline that brings us to life. Romans 8 says that there is NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because the Lord Jesus took all of the Father’s condemnation on Himself on the cross. He wrestled evil to exhaustion. The true state of every Jesus lover is uncondemned.

Yet we still wonder if we are condemned! “Is God mad at me? What is going on? Why is this situation working out so poorly? Why do I function so poorly? Did I cause God to make me sick or make me lose my loved one? Am I being punished?” For a Jesus-follower, those jumbled up feelings come with the process of being disciplined for life, not because we are locked up in condemnation like we used to be. Here is a key Bible passage about that:  Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline —then you are not legitimate children at all. Moreover, we have all had parents who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! (Hebrews 12).

When uncondemned people experience the struggle of becoming free of the vestiges of sin and death hanging on them, we should consider it the discipline of the Lord leading us out of darkness into light. We are like babies in the Spirit and we need our Parent to help us learn how to walk and run and build in the Spirit.

So if you are in Christ, God is not punishing you — and I say you only need a mustard seed of faith to be in Christ. You’ll want more faith, but it doesn’t take much to have enough —  and God is the judge of what is enough, not you or me. If you are turned toward Jesus and following, God is not punishing you in the sense that he has judged you unworthy of him and has given you over to die  —  and he never will.

But what do I do about feeling condemnable?

feeling condemnedA young woman wrote into one of the internet question sites. She said “I am so depressed right now because I feel all the mistakes in my past mistakes are so many that I won’t have a good future. I’m 29 years old and I had 2 abortions before I was 20. Two years ago I slept with my boyfriend even though I was already a Christian; we went our separate ways because of this. (He’s also a Christian.) I have been single ever since and I have been told that I am being punished for all my sins. Does this mean because of what happened in my past I will never find peace, joy or fulfillment? Does this mean God will never trust me with a relationship again? Will I have to pay for the rest of my life? Will He refuse to forgive me since I made the mistakes when I was already a Christian? I have been so tormented by all this and I am in constant pain–my heart aches. I really don’t know what to do, I have prayed and asked for forgiveness, don’t know what else to do. All I feel is guilt, guilt, guilt.”

What can we say to such a poor, dear soul? She is experiencing something most of us feel at some level. She has acted in ways that have consequences; she has sinned. She doesn’t experience peace, or joy, or fulfillment. It might seem simplistic to anyone suffering like she is, but I often give a simple response, “It seems like your cup is upside down.” You think and feel like you are still condemned. God’s grace is bouncing off your condemnation. Turn your cup over so it can fill with grace.

When she asks, “Will I have to pay for the rest of my life?” The answer is, “No, you will not have to pay for the rest of your life.” God just wants you to turn your cup right side up. You already turned his way; you’re feeling the sorrow of being sinful. Don’t stay camped out in a living death with your cup upside down! If you are camped out in living death, feeling guilty and liable to punishment (maybe even feeling like you are being actively punished!), you need to turn your cup up and fill up with freedom from condemnation.

Maybe that sounds a little too easy to be useful. It is not that easy to become permeable to grace again. Even though we are uncondemned, that condition has not necessarily made us smarter or altogether capable. And there are forces that are invested in us staying impermeable. Here are three ways to see those forces:

1. God is not interested in punishing us, but WE might be.

For instance, my parents were very poor as children and did not get enough to eat. When I was a child they taught me to eat every scrap of food I was given because there might not be more food coming. They did not mean this to be a big lesson, but it is what they thought. I took in what they believed and made it part of what I believe, even though we had enough food to eat. I still follow the rule even though I am surrounded by a sea of food. To this day, I almost never go out to eat without cleaning my plate completely of luxurious, expensive food. Should I feel guilty about not eating my food, as if I am a bad person, as if I will be condemned for that? Of course not! But what do I do, if I do feel that way, if I have that way installed in me?

I need to work with the discipline of the Lord, freeing me and making me holy. I would not want to resent the discipline of learning to live as a free brother of Jesus just because it is hard! I suppose I could see the whole experience of realizing some thing in me that is messing me up as a disaster that shows that I am unsaved and unredeemable — “I can’t stop fretting about food!” But what is really happening is this: I am being disciplined to be a free being. God does not want to punish me, but I might think being punished is normal, and might live under all sorts of irrational rules that kill me, not free me. I have thoughts and habits of the heart that are not fully aligned with how God sees me or how God wishes I could see the universe. I need to turn my cup up.

2.  God is not interested in punishing us, but the WORLD might be.

We could talk about the U.S. punishing Afghanistan as evidence. The NCAA is punishing Penn State. The irrational family courts are punishing husbands or wives. We are surrounded by a huge prison punishment industry in Pennsylvania. Cheaters on tests have been punished in our schools. Lance Armstrong lost his Tour de France titles. We love “justice.” I am in school, so I am afraid of how my professors might punish my errors, as they see them. You might work in an office and feel afraid to talk to the boss for fear of what she might do to you. Everything is illegal in Philly, so most of us could be accosted by the police at any moment. We fear “justice.”

I am an uncondemned person, but what if everything around me tells me that what I am doing is wrong and expects me to take that seriously all day, or else? It is a problem, if we don’t work with it as part of the Lord disciplining us for freedom and grace. Turn your cup up.

3. God is not interested in punishing us, but EVIL FORCES might be.

The devil is not an anti-god who is able to influence us all day. But there are forces that would like us to fail and die. When Jesus was baptized and made his first steps toward the public ministry that would lead him to death and resurrection, it says that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”  Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Jesus could have made bread from stones, but humans can’t. One of the reasons he did not make bread from stones is because he was fully identified with us in every way — all the good and all the bad. In the event of the devil’s temptation, obedience to the process of discipline was more important than the gratification of not being hungry. Jesus did not take the situation into his own hands, like humans are tempted to do. He waited on God like humans need to wait. The discipline seems hard, but this first defeat of the evil one foreshadowed the ultimate thrashing Jesus is gave him in God’s time.

We were talking about feeling great as a church the other day. And then we started naming all the ways we felt people were being tempted and turned away by evil. Getting more free and being attacked are kind of the same process for God’s children. The devil might want the process of growing in faith to kill us, or at least feel like it is killing us. But since we are uncondemnable and are walking with Jesus, all that temptation just trains us for being our true selves. We need to keep the cup turned up.

You on the rightI don’t think anyone needs to tell you, “You are hanging by a slender thread,” so you will wake up and not be cast into the fire. I think you have enough guilt right now to motivate you. I think you have enough fear. I think you have enough loneliness to make you wonder if God is punishing you. Elements of your own being, the world, and evil forces are all conspiring to make feel condemned when you are not. Turn up your cup; you are not condemned! Though we are still a bit stupid and unable, God will help us as we face the temptation to believe the lies that tell us we are unforgiveable, or that we have a God bent on our destruction — you are not unforgiveable and you do not have that kind of Lord. You have a God determined that you will live forever. He has forgiven you and will forgive you and make you whole. If you don’t experience it all tomorrow, just wait; it is coming. Turn your cup up.

It's a new creation, vato.

I think it was probably in the room last night when we were together for worship. But I could not see it too well. There were not a lot of fist pumps with “Yes! I feel that sting. I know I have been poisoned. But Death, you have no power over me!” Lent kind of teases out that kind of reaction, but it can be a long tease for some of us. It might take even longer for people to start dancing around the room shouting, “Yes! I feel oppressed! I understand how the law has been keeping me down. But Jesus, you have freed me!” But it is all there in the Bible; Jesus-lovers trying to woo people into newness: The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:56).

I think it might be easier to feel guilty for sin and just keep trying to fulfill the latest or oldest law. Being controlled so often feels like we are in control.

his rules are being challenged
his rules are being challenged

One of the reasons I try to emulate the Apostle Paul is that he is so out of control when it comes to the usual domination systems and he is so moved by the Holy Spirit. Thus, I am getting a lot from my little video parable full of seekers, vato. Even when Paul is abused, shipwrecked or in prison, he doesn’t forget that Jesus just recreated him and that his eternal destiny is just around the corner from the latest mess. The diaper, the deadline, the demand, or the disaster do not derail his delight. He does not create a law so he never has to experience trouble; he lives by a law that turns trouble into life. His wonderful insight results in some great teaching that has been an antidote to the poison of sin and an alternative to the graceless oppression of law for centuries.

Continue reading It's a new creation, vato.

Slow, reflective, imaginative: the spiritual discipline of Lent

These are a few basic thoughts distilled from our Ash Wednesday ritual. Lent begins on March 5 this year.

Slow down

We need silence to find the spiritual place where Jesus is with us in our suffering and we are with Jesus in his suffering. Lent is the season of silence and solitude — and suffering. Some people will even “give something up” to cause some small suffering to give space where they can experience something more than their usual anesthesia, avoidance or denial. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of our yearly, disciplined journey of repentance and renewal, the beginning of the concentrated season of self-denial and self-giving that feels like suffering but points us toward joy  Wednesday we enter the great forty-day fast with millions of other Jesus followers – those living and those who have gone before. God bless you as you take your steps along the way of Jesus this year!

The interior journey too
The interior journey too

Let’s go as slowly as possible. We need to be quiet, thoughtful, and restful. We must not be impatient. We must not worry if we don’t feel or understand things right away — there are no expectations of Lent except that we seek after Jesus, explore the meaning of his death, and die with him. Paul shares our goal: I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.  Lent in not the imposition of some demanding God, but in solitude God’s presence will be compelling. One of Job’s friends has it right when he says: God is wooing us from the jaws of distress into a spacious place free from restriction. Let’s see how much we can cooperate.

Continue reading Slow, reflective, imaginative: the spiritual discipline of Lent

The both/and of our ongoing dialogue of love

Someone is always sinning; someone is always doing something you did not like; someone is always failing. How do we respond to that?

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.  Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.  If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.  Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else,  for each one should carry their own load (Galatians 6:1-5).

We use this section of Galatians so often, it has become the “both/and” proverb. It answers the questions that come up whenever there is a dialogue about something that is wrong in the body: Do we have to put up with every bad thing someone is doing until they get better, or do we need to put a stop to their nonsense before everyone gets hurt? Do we accept people where they are at, or do we demand that they live up to the gospel? The answer is “both/and.”

Can one be too empathetic?

baby in basketSome people are so empathetic that they defend the sinner even before they have repented! They understand the person’s problems so well and care about them so much that they are offended if anyone points out what they did wrong. Even more, sensitive people know that everyone is afraid of being criticized, so they don’t want more trouble being thrown on already-overburdened people who are just trying to have a life, for once. The “sinner” might just quit doing anything if they are asked to improve right after they just got brave enough to appear in public. So even if someone tries to “restore that person gently” the empathetic are afraid they could be mortally wounded in the process.

For instance, some people have been talking about the Audio Arts Team’s latest gift to the church. It is a brave thing to put out a piece of art that can’t be edited any more. But they did it and a lot of people love it. But like everything and everyone else, there are some “sins” lurking in that CD. If someone has a reaction to it that seems critical, someone else may automatically feel wounded and jump to the defense of the victimized artists. Rather than doing that, you’d think we would just instinctively “carry each other’s burdens,” since we’re all flawed — and if we caused trouble by being creative, bold and artful, then we’d really need help! Instead, some people try to solve the problem by insisting that there are no problems! — and they imply that people who love people don’t make people feel bad by saying they have a problem.

Can one be too careful?

man and bearOn the other hand, some people think that empathy has gone too far and everyone needs to carry their own load and bear responsibility for what they say and do. They assume people are more likely to take advantage of loose situations rather than repent or even listen to reason. So they are not expecting good will to rise up if people are left alone.  As a result, they are often rather offended by the latest dumb thing someone did that went unquestioned or even got defended. They become very reactive because they can’t get their shell hard enough to repel the sin that keeps getting poured on them. If they say something about it, they are instantly seen as a mean person. So they walk around feeling unaccepted. No one seems to be held liable for carrying their own load, so the responsible people feel even more burdened!

For instance, the pastors and other speakers and the PM Design Teams are often the recipients of this group’s scrutiny, since they have a tendency to do something wrong every week. Compared to what should happen, something is always not happening. If one is intelligent, the problem with what gets done wrong (or not at all) just gets worse. It seems like every flaw could have been prevented and nothing ever gets better! One would think we would all “carry our own load,” especially if we accepted a role that is very influential in the church.  Instead, leaders, especially, make people have a fight with us about what we are doing or neglecting. Who wants to do that?

Polarized dialogue is an oxymoron

In the postmodern atmosphere these poles are often dividing up a dialogue. There is usually a group at one extreme that wants us all to bear one another’s burdens. If there is insensitivity, that is the main sin — Love means you never have to say you are sorry. Then there is another whole group at the other extreme that wants each person to bear their own load. If there is irresponsibility, that is the main sin — Love means everyone has to say they are sorry. In the adversarial way our culture has designed everything to work, those two positions could be vying to make policy until Jesus returns. It could be the survival of the loudest; MSNBC vs. Fox forever.

We keep thinking that Paul assumes an obvious both/and in the matter of loving sinners like Jesus loves each of us. In the course of a few lines he wrote: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ…for each one should carry their own load.” We all bear one another’s burdens and each of us carries our own load at the same time.

  • In the name of sensitivity, one would not erase someone’s sin — because they are carrying that burden and need to be restored!
  • At the same time, in the name of responsibility one would not be insensitive and make it harder to repent — because we are in this together.

If someone is restored, we are all healthier. For restoration to proceed, both elements: carrying another’s burden and carrying one’s own load, need to be in every dialogue of love. Both elements need to be expressed by a heart filled with the law of love. The body of Christ is not supposed to work like a therapy room or a courtroom; we are the place where Jesus lives. There must be acceptance and judgment at the same time, but mostly there must be the Holy Spirit restoring humanity.

Is God Going to Punish Me?

You are not condemned yet.

In God we live and move and have our being. God might be holding on to us by the slenderest of threads, but he is holding on. God wants us to live, not die. I think the last thing God wants is for us to live in fear of him dropping us into hell.

Yet we still wonder if we are about ready to be dropped. “Is God going to punish me?” — that is not a dumb question if you are a Bible reader. The Bible seems to plainly say that he is:  “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9). In other translations, “he will punish” is translated “he will take revenge.” The root idea has to do with working out justice. Justice is going to be done. At the end of days, those who have turned away from God will be sent the direction they are facing forever. So yes, you could definitely call that punishment. God is going to punish us if we refuse to relate to him and we work out death instead of life.

We are not being punished for our sins right now, however. That’s not going to happen until time is up — and it is not up, yet. Consider that there is a difference between the punishment 2 Thessalonians is talking about, and the process of our father responding to the consequences of our choices. There is a final judgment that will bring things to right. But God is forestalling that day, and that punishment. What we experience now is his loving discipline that brings us to life. Romans 8 says that there is NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because the Lord Jesus took all of the Father’s condemnation on Himself on the cross. He wrestled evil to exhaustion. The true state of every Jesus lover is uncondemned.

Yet we still wonder if we are condemned. “Is God mad at me? What is going on? Why is this situation working out so poorly? Why do I work so poorly? Am I being punished? Did I cause God to make me sick or make me lose my loved one?” Those jumbled up feelings come with the process of being disciplined for life, not because we are locked up in condemnation, like we used to be. Here is a key Bible passage about that:  

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline —then you are not legitimate children at all. Moreover, we have all had parents who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! (Hebrews 12).

When uncondemned people experience the struggle of becoming free of the vestiges of sin and death hanging on them, they should consider it the discipline of the Lord, leading us out of darkness into light. We are like babies in the Spirit and we need our Parent to help us learn how to walk and run and build in the Spirit.

So if you are in Christ, God is not punishing you — and I say you only need a mustard seed of faith to be in Christ. You’ll want more faith, but it doesn’t take much to have enough —  and God is the judge of what is enough, not you or me. If you are turned toward Jesus and following, God is not punishing you in the sense that he has judged you unworthy of him and has given you over to die  —  and he never will.

But what do I do about feeling condemnable?

A young woman wrote into one of the internet question sites. She said “I am so depressed right now because I feel all the mistakes in my past mistakes are so many that I won’t have a good future. I’m 29 years old and I had 2 abortions before I was 20. Two years ago I slept with my boyfriend even though I was already a Christian; we went our separate ways because of this. (He’s also a Christian.) I have been single ever since and I have been told that I am being punished for all my sins. Does this mean because of what happened in my past I will never find peace, joy or fulfillment? Does this mean God will never trust me with a relationship again? Will I have to pay for the rest of my life? Will He refuse to forgive me since I made the mistakes when I was already a Christian? I have been so tormented by all this and I am in constant pain–my heart aches. I really don’t know what to do, I have prayed and asked for forgiveness, don’t know what else to do. All I feel is guilt, guilt, guilt.

What can we say to such a poor, dear soul? She is experiencing something most of us feel at some level. She has acted in ways that have consequences; she has sinned. She doesn’t experience peace, or joy, or fulfillment. A very simple way to respond might be, “It seems like your cup is upside down.” You think and feel like you are still condemned. God’s grace is bouncing off your condemnation.

When she asks, “Will I have to pay for the rest of my life?” The answer is, “No, you will not have to pay for the rest of your life.” God just wants you to turn your cup right side up. You already turned her way; you’re feeling the sorrow of being sinful. Don’t stay camped out in a living death with your cup upside down! If you are camped out in living death, feeling guilty and liable to punishment (maybe even feeling like you are being actively punished!), you need to turn your cup up and receive freedom from condemnation.

Maybe that sounds a little too easy to be useful. That’s probably true. Even though we are uncondemned, that condition has not necessarily made us smarter or altogether capable:

1. God is not interested in punishing us, but WE might be.

For instance, my parents were very poor as children and did not get enough to eat. When I was a child they taught me to eat every scrap of food I was given because there might not be more food coming. They did not mean this to be a big lesson, but it is what they thought. I took in what they believed and made it part of what I believe, even though we had enough food to eat. I still follow the rule even though I am surrounded by a sea of food. To this day, I almost never go out to eat without cleaning my plate completely of luxurious, expensive food. Should I feel guilty about not eating my food, as if I am a bad person, as if I will be condemned for that? Of course not! But what do I do, if I do feel that way, if I have that way installed in me?

I need to work with the discipline of the Lord, freeing me and making me holy. I would not want to resent the discipline of learning to live as a free brother of Jesus just because it is hard! I suppose I could see the whole experience of realizing something in me that is messing me up as a disaster that shows that I am unsaved and unredeemable — “I can’t stop fretting about food!” But what is really happening is this: I am being disciplined to be a free being. God does not want to punish me, but I might think being punished is normal, and might live under all sorts of irrational rules that kill me, not free me. I have thoughts and habits of the heart that are not fully aligned with how God sees me or how God wishes I could see the universe. I need to turn my cup up.

2.  God is not interested in punishing us, but the WORLD might be.

We could talk about the U.S. punishing Afghanistan as evidence. The NCAA is punishing Penn State. The irrational family courts are punishing husbands or wives. We are surrounded by a huge prison punishment industry in Pennsylvania. Cheaters on tests have been punished in our schools. Lance Armstrong lost his tour de France titles. We love “justice.” I am in school, so I am afraid of how my professors might punish my errors, as they see them. You might work in an office and feel afraid to talk to the boss for fear of what she might do to you. Everything is illegal in Philly, so most of us could be accosted by the police at any moment. We fear “justice.”

I am an uncondemned person, but what if everything around me tells me that what I am doing is wrong and expects me to take that seriously all day, or else? It is a problem, if we don’t work with it as part of the Lord disciplining us for freedom and grace. Turn the cup up.

3. God is not interested in punishing us, but EVIL FORCES might be.

The devil is not an anti-god who is able to influence us all day. But there are forces that would like us to fail and die. When Jesus was baptized and made his first steps toward the public ministry that would lead him to death and resurrection, it says that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”  Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Jesus could have made bread from stones, but humans can’t. One of the reasons he did not make bread from stones is because he was fully identified with us in every way — all the good and all the bad. In the event of the devil’s temptation, obedience to the process of discipline was more important than the gratification of not being hungry. Jesus did not take the situation into his own hands, like humans are tempted to do. He waited on God like humans need to wait. The discipline seems hard, but this first defeat of the evil one foreshadowed the ultimate thrashing Jesus is gave him in God’s time.

We were talking about feeling great as a church the other day. And then we started naming all the ways we felt people were being tempted and turned away by evil. Getting more free and being attacked are kind of the same process for God’s children. The devil might want the process of growing in faith to kill us, or at least feel like it is killing us. But since we are uncondemnable and are walking with Jesus, all that temptation just trains us for being our true selves. We need to keep the cup turned up.

I don’t think anyone needs to tell you, “You are hanging by a slender thread,” so you will wake up and not be cast into the fire. I think you have enough guilt right now to motivate you. I think you have enough fear. I think you have enough loneliness to make you wonder if God is punishing you. Elements of your own being, the world, and evil forces are all conspiring to make you feel condemned when you are not. Turn up your cup; you are not condemned! Though we are still a bit stupid and unable, God will help us as we face the temptation to believe the lies that tell us we are unforgiveable, or that we have a God bent on our destruction — you are not unforgiveable and you do not have that kind of Lord. You have a God determined that you will live forever. He has forgiven you and will forgive you and make you whole. If you don’t experience it all tomorrow, just wait; it is coming. Turn your cup up.