Monday, October 27, 2014

Dwelling on Sin Versus Reclaiming the Weeds

I’ve been learning a lot about shame these past few months—mostly that shame and sin are often so intertwined, it’s difficult to peel apart and define the two beasts. This may seem obvious on the surface, but I promise you shame is more engrained in our culture and in our personal lives than we would ever want to admit. I’ve noticed the subtle knocking of shame, how it invites itself into the many layers of our lives, how it surrounds brokenness, even when we dwell on sin that has grieved us in the past.

As Christians, we’re uncomfortable with dwelling on sin because we don’t want to throw a pity party, right? I’m especially thinking on past sin (sin that grieves us or sin we commit). What good can come from reflecting on pain and sin? For some reason, many Christians believe that regeneration should take away the effects of sin—either quickly or permanently—when in reality, there are thorns; there are weeds.

Dr. Dan B. Allender, author of The Wounded Heart, spoke into that dark place in my heart that was afraid to admit that some things still hurt—even through the work of the Holy Spirit. 

“Facing the reality of the Fall and beginning the process of reclaiming the land covered with weeds is the marvelous work of the God-ordained Kingdom gardener. It is labor eminently worthy of every believer to reclaim the parts of one’s soul that remain untilled and unproductive for bearing fruit. And the denial of the past hinders this work of reclamation.”

These words draw something out of me; they cause something to leap out of my heart: something unrecognizable . . . something emerging that is fragile but beautiful. It’s strange to feel this sort of tapping at my heart, to experience or outline God’s vague finger print on my life.

We experience many trials in this Christian life, and we are all suffering in one way or another—whether it’s illness, financial burdens, the loss of a loved one, being enslaved to something that is slowly chipping away at us, fear. . . . The different kinds of suffering are endless because we live in a broken, fallen world. And I don’t dwell on this to be morbid, I dig it up to remember that denial is not “putting it behind me” as a follower of Christ. As Dr. Allender puts it, “‘Where was God?’ is a legitimate cry of the soul to understand what it means to trust God. Irrespective of the answers, the question is not to be avoided. If God is trustworthy, He can be trusted without our efforts to distort or deny the past.”

Often when we think of sin and how Jesus washed us white as snow, we cheapen forgiveness with the “forgive and forget” mentality. But forgetting—hiding the past—always involves denial, and “denial of the past is always denial of God. To forget your personal history is tantamount to trying to forget yourself and the journey that God has called you to live.” Yes, we are new creations in Christ, and no, sin does not have a hold on us, and praise be to God for this truth. But living with the effects of sin is a reality in a broken world, and sometimes we have to sit in the weeds. It often feels like I am juggling those dark areas of my soul that are full of weeds—the suffering—along with the joyful, fruitful parts. It’s uncomfortable to sit and wait, to struggle; it seems idiotic to be vulnerable enough to explore the deepest damage. Yet Dr. Allender warns those experiencing shame that the “first great enemy to lasting change is the propensity to turn our eyes away from the wound and pretend things are fine,” adding that “the work of restoration cannot begin until a problem is fully faced.”

Our culture tells us to avoid the wounded heart—to create a little fence around it and to never assess the damage. But there is something freeing in Dr. Allender’s words. If we admit without shame that regeneration does not remove the effects of sin, we are free to face the damage without feeling like we are denying the gospel. We let Christ enter in! Our fragile, wounded hearts are safe in his hands, and better yet, we can trust that this good news is in fact true.

Last night, I sat with some friends and talked about a miraculous encounter in the Bible: when Mary Magdalene first witnesses the risen Jesus. It seems ludicrous that someone so close to Jesus—someone who adored him and called him teacher—wouldn’t recognize the resurrection. It is only until Jesus says, “Mary,” that she believes (becoming the first ever Christian witness) that he in fact rose from the dead.

Why doesn’t she expect it? Jesus mentioned to his friends several times that he would conquer death. Tim Keller in Encountering Jesus suggests that Mary, like all of us at some point, was looking for the wrong Jesus. For a dead Jesus. But “He comes to her, gently works to open her heart. . . .” And that is why it is okay to sit in the weeds. We can inspect the damage and own our story because Jesus redeems it. He is alive and he gently calls our name, even in our grief.  And do you know what Mary does in the presence of the risen savior? She cries out, “Teacher!” and tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” Keller compares Mary’s conversion story—of hearing her own name on the lips of the risen Christ—with the words of Annie Dillard when she wrote, “I’d been my whole life a bell, but I never knew it until I was lifted up and rung.” And so my call for you, dear reader, is to lift the shroud of shame, as Dr. Allender urges, and to peer deeply into the wounded heart—knowing that Jesus is alive, knowing that he is enough. 

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"Pleasant words are [like] honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones." Proverbs 16:24