WHAT HAVE I DONE THAT'S SO AWFUL?
††††††††††† I think the most beautiful room in the world is the Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I had the privilege of working and studying in that room for several years.
††††††††††† A massive copper dome rises above the Reading Room supported by tiers of tall green marble columns. Regal statues of the nine Muses stand atop these columns and between them are huge scrolls lettered with quotations from the world's greatest literature. One of these scrolls contains the words of the Prophet Micah:
††††††††††† Wherewith shall I come before the Lord,
††††††††††† †† and bow myself before the high God?
††††††††††† Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
††††††††††† †† with calves of a year old?
††††††††††† Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
††††††††††† †† or with ten thousand rivers of oil?
††††††††††† Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
††††††††††† †† the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
††††††††††† He hath showed thee, O man, what is good;
††††††††††† †† and what doth the Lord require of thee...
††††††††††† But to do justly,
††††††††††† †† And to love mercy,
††††††††††† †††† And to walk humbly with thy God!
††††††††††† In a way, Micah's four questions and his answer make everything about living seem relaxed and smooth. But if God really is that easy to satisfy, then why do I so often feel terribly ill at ease and guilty when I pray?
††††††††††† I do. I really do.
††††††††††† Sometimes I feel as though I'd borrowed ten dollars from God three weeks ago and had promised to pay him back Friday -- but didn't. I avoid him and hope he does not notice.
††††††††††† Why do I feel that way? I've never been a gang member or a drug dealer or something awful. All things considered, I'm a pretty nice guy. Ok, so I have stolen a few things and I have lied a bit, and I have cheated, and then there was that little† incident in Denver when... well, you don't need to know about that. But those sins were exceptions to the way I usually behave... weren't they? I can live with those things.
††††††††††† Of course there have been a one or two other things that I really feel bad about. I'm not going to tell you the specifics, but once in a while I've done something that disappoints me. I think better of myself than to do a squalid bit of nastiness like that. Really! What kind of guy would do a thing like that? That's† disgusting. Rotten. That's not like me at all. I mean, there was no profit in it, I didn't enjoy it, I'd be ashamed and couldn't even explain why I did it if anybody ever found out... but I did it anyhow. And† I didn't realize how yucky it was till afterwards -- well, yes, there was just a second there right in the middle of things when I suppose I could have not... but... You know what I mean, don't you?
††††††††††† And I'll tell you the truth, a lot of times I worry that the reason my prayers are not answered is that I've done something so awful that God himself will not listen to me.
††††††††††† Have you ever thought the same thing yourself secretly?
Our worry is nonsense!
††††††††††† It's pure bull.
††††††††††† What sin could we possibly commit that's bigger than God's love?
††††††††††† What could we possibly do that would surprise God?
††††††††††† Let's not exaggerate our importance. We're petty sinners at best.
††††††††††† God's word† says: "The blood of Jesus Christ His son cleanseth us from all sin!"
††††††††††† How much sin?
††††††††††† If we are Christians then we have the assurance that all our sins, past, present and future are forgiven, covered by the blood of Christ, paid for, removed, gone, kaput.
††††††††††† The old saw defines justified as Just-As-If-I'd-Never-Sinned. God does nothing by halves; when he forgives a sin that sucker's gone.
††††††††††† "As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us."-- Psalm 103:12 NIV
Is the Bible lying when it says that?
††††††††††† Not a chance.
††††††††††† The King of Glory clothes his followers in righteousness.
††††††††††† "To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy -- to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.
-- Jude 24 NIV
††††††††††† When God forgives you, you're so clean you squeak.
††††††††††† "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?... I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Romans 8:35-39 NIV
You're off the track John.
††††††††††† Now wait a minute here!
††††††††††† Doesn't the Scripture teach that sin separates from God, that sin short circuits prayer, that God does not even hear the cry of the sinner?
††††††††††† Forget Micah's pretty poetry...
††††††††††† What about the prophet† who said, "Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear." -- Isaiah 59:1-2 NIV
††††††††††† That prophet says our sins shout so loud they drown out our whispered prayers.
††††††††††† He declares, "All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags."-- Isaiah 64:6 NIV
††††††††††† What are all these prophets trying to pull?††††††††† On one hand we read "As far as east is from the west" and on the other hand we read, "filthy rags".
††††††††††† Is the teaching of Scripture contradicting itself here?
††††††††††† Not at all.
††††††††††† What we have here are two different kinds of sin.
††††††††††† Sin which has been forgiven: and sin which has not been forgiven.
††††††††††† Now, it's hard to go to Hell. If a person does manage to go to Hell it's only because he has fought Almighty God tooth and nail every step of the way. You have to work hard to go to hell. You have to exercise a powerful lot of will and determination to keep God from saving you.
††††††††††† Hey, that's what a Saviour does.
††††††††††† And Jesus is mighty good at his chosen job.
††††††††††† Yes, he did say, "Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it."-- Matthew 7:13 NIV
††††††††††† We are a rebellious race and the Spirit of God will not strive with man forever. There does come a point when he allows people to go the way they have chosen. But Jesus seems to consider even the one sheep who goes astray as too many to lose.
††††††††††† And Heaven is a mob scene!
††††††††††† In his vision of Heaven, St. John said, "I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne... After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb... And they cried out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb'."-- Revelation 6:11 & 7:9-10 NIV
††††††††††† Jesus spoke of multitudes pouring in from the east and west and north and south to sit at his table.
††††††††††† There is room for everyone in the Kingdom -- No one who wants to be there is turned away. "He that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out," Jesus said.
††††††††††† Many on the road to destruction: multitudes rejoicing before the throne -- Is this a contradiction in Scripture?
††††††††††† Not at all.
††††††††††† What we have pictured are forgiven and unforgiven people.
††††††††††† What does all that have to do with our prayers being answered?
THIS IS A DIGRESSION: please don't attack the book store
††††††††††† Over the next few paragraphs I want to wander off the main track and use analogies from voting, algebra and ocean swimming to tell about how our sins are forgiven. Originally, I intended to write about salvation with transitions between that subject and voting, eggs, pioneers, algebra, grass fires, deliverymen, swimming and maybe dinosaurs. But if I were to do all that blundering around, my editor will be haunted by a vision of thousands of readers gathering outside a bookstore one morning. They break down the doors, smash the plate glass windows, throw shelves to the floor, collar a poor salesclerk and threaten bodily harm if he does not immediately refund the money they wasted on a book with a ten page digression. So, I've cut out about five pages here to make my digression smaller. If you don't like it, please just skip ahead a bit --Please don't storm the book store. OK?
††††††††††† One hundred per cent of the people born here in Florida are by birthright citizens of the United States; but, only 56 per cent of all Floridians are registered voters, and only a small per cent of them actually cast a vote. Thus while everyone potentially has a voice in our government, few actually speak out to be heard at the poles.
††††††††††† As a parallel, everyone born into the world is a child of God by creation, but only a relative few speak out in prayer. In fact, a good many people chose not to even register in God's kingdom. If that is their choice, then how can they expect to be heard when they do pray?
††††††††††† Now, here is as good a place as any to think about being saved -- that's sort of like registering to vote, getting your name in the Book of Life so your voice is heard in Heaven.
††††††††††† Now. let me switch my analogy from voting to mathematics.
††††††††††† St Paul explained salvation to the Christians living at Ephesus in a statement which I think resembles an algebraic equation:
††††††††††† "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works..."
-- Ephesians 2:8 & 9 NIV.
††††††††††† When we remember the axiom "Things equal to the same thing are equal to each other", The equation looks like this:
††††††††††† G + F = S = gi
††††††††††† S = Y
††††††††††† S = W.
††††††††††† Grace + Faith = Salvation = Gift = yourself = works.
††††††††††† Grace plus faith equals Salvation which equals a gift of God; Salvation does not equal anything from yourself; and Salvation does not equal your work.
††††††††††† Being saved does equal a gift; that gift is equal to faith and grace. God give you faith. God gives you grace. God gives you salvation. God gives the gift.
††††††††††† Your part in being saved?
††††††††††† Stop fighting God.
††††††††††† Let Christ save you.
††††††††††† Receive his salvation.
††††††††††† Ready for another odd transition? -- this time I'm going from voting and math to swimming in the ocean:
††††††††††† Some of us are like swimmers caught by the undertow, out of breath, panicked, struggling to stay afloat, thrashing about. When the lifeguard comes, we fight him, biting, pulling hair, battling for all we're worth. We refuse to relax and let him tow us to shore.
††††††††††† Others of us are like a swimmer who has gone to sleep floating on an air mattress, drifting further and further from shore, lulled by the waves and gentle current. When the Saviour swims out to save us, we look at him like he's crazy. We tell him, "Go away. I'm alright. I'm doing fine. I don't need any saving. I don't need you." And all the while, Jaws circles out of sight beneath the surface, lurking, waiting, ready to bite our little plastic bubble.
††††††††††† To go to Hell, to go on being unsaved and unforgiven, means resisting God with all your puny power, ignoring Him who demands attention.
††††††††††† From our side of the bargain, salvation is a gift, a free present from God costing us nothing. From his side of the exchange, our salvation cost him terrible suffering.
††††††††††† The hand the Lifeguard stretches out to drowning humanity has nail holes.
††††††††††† Delivering us hurt him.
††††††††††† The blood of Jesus Christ God's son cleanses us from all sin. It works.
††††††††††† To become saved people we can do nothing except stop fighting him and agree to let him save us.
END OF DIGRESSION ON SALVATION
††††††††††† Agreeing with God and letting him save us brings us back to how our sins relate to our unanswered prayers.
Confession and prayer
††††††††††† Theology defines the word confession to mean "agreeing with God about sin".
††††††††††† Agreeing with God brings us salvation; agreeing with God is confession; agreeing with God is the way to keep sin from hindering our prayers.
††††††††††† You see, in prayer we can't fake God out.
††††††††††† Yes, God does know our every need; but, that's not all he knows.
††††††††††† He also knows our every secret sin.
††††††††††† It is ludicrous to bop in before the throne of God pretending we're his equals -- or better. The secret of forgiven sin is confessed sin; that simply means agreeing with God about our sin.
††††††††††† To come before him pretending our own righteousness is to come into the divine court bearing what Isaiah discreetly calls "a menstruous cloth" as our banner before us (Isaiah 30:22).
††††††††††† We have no righteousness!
††††††††††† Not even a little bit!
††††††††††† Can we fool God into thinking we have?
††††††††††† But, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."-- I John 1:9 NIV
††††††††††† How about that?
††††††††††† No matter what we have done or have not done, God zaps that sin clean. He makes us clean. He gives you the purity of Jesus Christ.
So, which sins should I confess?
††††††††††† That's a question to ask no one but God.
††††††††††† Ask him in your prayers what you should confess and he will bring certain things to your mind as fast as peaches through a goose.
††††††††††† Don't try to work up guilt feelings and make your own agenda for confessing things.
††††††††††† There's a big difference between confessing sins and relishing them.
††††††††††† When I try to psych myself into a confession mode, I find that I begin to mentally re-run certain sins and vicariously re-live them -- like enjoying a favorite video again and again. I get positively gleeful about my sin and about what a nice person I am for confessing it. When that happens, I find my self re-hashing the sin and at the same time feeling quite self-righteous about confessing it.
††††††††††† Remember that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.
††††††††††† However, If I ask God to bring to mind whichever particular sin I should be confessing at this particular time, He often reminds me of things I haven't thought of for years. They are not the biggies that I still feel proud of, but are often squalid petty things that I'll never brag about in the locker room.
††††††††††† Agreeing with God, I find genuine shame that I have offended him and genuine gratitude to him for forgiving me.
††††††††††† I also ask him if I need to confess this sin to any other person. Most of the time, I do not need to. But occasionally I do need to go to the person I have sinned against, confess to them and ask their forgiveness for being an ass.
††††††††††† That's humiliating.
††††††††††† I hate being humiliated, don't you?
††††††††††† We need to do it anyhow.
††††††††††† Times like that I wish I could just fax in my requests to God without having to bother with him. Sometimes prayer is a pain.
God does not hold grudges!
††††††††††† However -- and this is super important -- often you will have nothing to confess! That's right. Your sins are forgiven. You're ok. God does not hold grudges!
††††††††††† Confession is agreeing with God even when he says things are square between the two of you!
††††††††††† Don't try to make out that you're a bigger sinner than you are; that's a perverse sort of pride. You are bad enough, but not likely to be in the same class as Hitler.
††††††††††† However, Jesus saves even petty sinners.
Ghost nets are not sins!
††††††††††† Scuba divers have found that ghost nets drift in the ocean. These are sections of† monofilament nets which have torn lose from fishing boats. The ghost nets do not dissolve or disintegrate; they never rot away. Instead they snag on some rusty shipwreck or piling and remain on the ocean bottom for ages.
††††††††††† And they still catch fish!
††††††††††† That's right. These loose, cast-off nets capture hundreds of small fish; larger fish see the little ones in the nets and swim right in thinking to have an easy meal. But the bigger fish get entangled too.
††††††††††† Those entangled fish struggle in the ghost nets till they die.
††††††††††† Everyone of us has certain things which lurk like ghost nets† down below the surface of our minds. They may be things our parents said, things we did as children, things which embarrassed us, things which shame us, things which make us feel unworthy.
††††††††††† They may even be genuine sins which we have confessed but can't let go of in our minds because we can't forgive ourselves for not living up to our own high expectations of ourselves.
††††††††††† These mental ghost nets, long ago torn loose from the real situation which generated them, still† capture our thoughts. One rotting fish attracts the healthy ones. The enemy of our souls lurks by the ghost nets whispering, "Look at that. That's the kind of person you are. I'm so disappointed in you. I really expected better. You disgust me..."
††††††††††† Recognize his voice?
††††††††††† Well, he has been a liar from the beginning.
††††††††††† Don't let any voice tell you that your prayers are not answered because you are unworthy.
††††††††††† Of course, you're unworthy.
††††††††††† Nobody ever said you were worthy.
††††††††††† Jesus is the one who is worthy. We approach God in his name and none other. There is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.
††††††††††† It's Jesus or nothing.
††††††††††† But the devil hates to see you pray. He will distract you, discourage you, deceive you, make you feel guilty when you're not† -- anything to stifle your prayers.
††††††††††† Ignore him.
††††††††††† When you hear his complaints in your ear, refer him to the Management.
When your heart says you're rotten
††††††††††† When your own heart tells you that you are too sinful, that you have done something too awful, that you are too vile to have God answer your prayers -- then ignore even your own innermost heart.
††††††††††† That's right! The scripture says, "For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things." -- I John 3:20
††††††††††† You may not see the answer you expect to every prayer you pray, but if you are a Christian and if you agree with God about whichever of your sins He calls to mind, then you can rest assured that God is hearing your prayers.
††††††††††† Forgiven sin does not separate between you and your God.
††††††††††† Your self-condemning heart does not separate between you and God.
††††††††††† The blood of Jesus Christ works. It cleans us from all sin -- yes, even that one.
††††††††††† But the relationship between sin and prayer is such a biggie that I think another chapter on the subject is in order:
†You have been reading Chapter Eight† of the book Why Donít I Get What I Pray For? by John W. Cowart †(IVP, 1993)
Click here for Chapter Nine