“Will God keep forgiving me?” (Psalm 139)

FacebookImagine your friends and neighbors could know your thoughts.  And I mean all of them—not just the ones you carefully edit for Twitter and Facebook.  There’s a good chance you wouldn’t want the world to know exactly what you’re thinking—yet when we stand before the God of the universe, this is exactly what happens.

In Psalm 139, we find a beautiful song about what life looks like when you stay connected with the very One who created you.  Mind you, David’s perspective was groundbreaking.  As John Goldingay observes in his commentary on Psalms, “other Middle Easter peoples [believed that] different [gods] controlled different regions or parts of the cosmos.  Israel knew that [God] controlled them all.”  And so it was unusual to find someone in David’s day who claimed to have fellowship with their own Creator:

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me!

You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.

You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord you know it altogether.

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

10  even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.

11  If I say,  “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,”

12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.

13  For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

14  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16  Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

17  How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!

18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.

(Psalm 139:1-18)

Nothing is hidden from God.  Does that thrill us—or horrify us?  Maybe a little of both.  It’s wonderful to be so perfectly known, yet terrifying to think that our worst flaws might be exposed.

Christianity teaches that through God’s grace, Christ’s followers are enabled to “repent” from their sin.  To “repent” means to change our attitudes toward things that oppose God’s goodness.  And, over time, this repentance leads to a change in our behavior as well.  But wait—what about those times when we repent of something, only to turn around and repeat the same mistake?   Is this true repentance?  Will God forgive my repeat offense?

Each of us has probably asked this question at one time or another.  In yesterday’s post, we discussed God’s transformative work of sanctification.  To answer this question, it may be helpful to distinguish between what’s called positional and progressive sanctification:

Positional sanctification Progressive sanctification
Forgiveness for sin Freedom from sin
All at once Over time
“I am a child of God” “I am learning to obey my Father”

Positional sanctification means that I am forgiven from sin.  Therefore my new “position” before God is as an adopted son.   Progressive sanctification means I pursue freedom from sin.  Positional sanctification happens all at once—it’s sort of a by-product of justification.  But progressive sanctification takes a lifetime.  We only multiply our guilt—or heap it on others—when we confuse these two truths.  If I expect my progress to happen overnight, then I will inevitably feel ashamed at my repeated failures.

The gospel therefore says yes: we experience God’s forgiveness not because of the purity of our faith, but the object of our faith—Jesus.  So we can always count on God’s forgiveness for our sin.  But the question we might wish to consider is a bit different: “What stands in the way of my progress before God?”

David’s song actually concludes with words we might find helpful:

19  Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me!

20  They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain.

21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?

22  I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.

23  Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!

24  And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

David’s words are harsh, uncompromising.  But they remind us that to be a follower of Jesus means separation from the things that oppose His character.  If I find myself unsuccessful in my progress with God, it could be that I am continuing to surround myself with things that pull me away from God and toward self.  What might this mean?  A few years ago a friend of mine was seeking out accountability.  Apparently he’d gotten a new cable TV package, and the particular deal included some equivalent of the Playboy channel.   When my friends and I asked why he didn’t simply cancel the package, he responded: “But this was the only one that included ESPN!”  It’s laughable, really, but the inconvenience and sacrifice of losing sports coverage means nothing compared to the terrible cost of pornography addiction.

AMONG THE TREES

Still, it’s discouraging when we don’t seem to be making progress in our spiritual lives.  If you struggle to overcome pornography, then there are actual biological reasons why the sin is so alluring.  And chances are, you will stumble and fall multiple times before you experience freedom.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus heals a blind man—but listen to what happens when the blind man opens his eyes:

He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. (Mark 8:24-25)

 

Sometimes healing comes all at once; sometimes it takes stages.  Writing of his own struggle with pornography, Christian musician Kirk Franklin tells his readers that “Jesus won’t leave you among the trees.”  We can count on God to heal us—even though the end remains in the distance.

DISPLEASING HEART

Finally, what of us who continue to struggle with inward guilt?  To be “known” by God only encourages me to be all the more distant from Him and His word.  If I pray, aren’t I just being a hypocrite?  Isn’t it easier to stay away and avoid the subject, as if God is an unwanted relative?

But you see, it’s actually just the opposite.  If God knows my every detail—including my every flaw—then He knows my weaknesses better than I ever could.  You think God doesn’t know the kinds of thoughts you entertain?  You think God doesn’t know what kind of person you really are?  That’s good news, because then who better to shape us into the person we might become.  Saint Theresa of Lysieux once wrote that “If you are willing to serenely bear the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.”  The gospel tells us we’re worse than we thought.  But the gospel also tells us we’re more loved than we could know.  And through God’s grace, we can allow His presence slowly move us from shame to joy.

 

 

 

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