Every now and then, someone’s private sins blow up in public.
I witnessed it a while back when I taught at a previous church’s Vacation Bible School under the direction of the children’s ministry director there. She was a Southern Baptist tornado of a woman, all perfectly-manicured nails and a Southern drawl and an immaculate blowout. Her husband was affable and friendly, an integral member of the men’s Bible studies at the church. They had three polite, cheerful children.
And then the cracks started to show.
She was caught having an affair with one of the church’s deacons. There were mumblings of marriage counseling and pastoral counseling. The church was shocked – and then one week later the entire congregation sat stupefied as the now-former children’s ministry director dropped her children off with her soon-to-be ex-husband, served him with divorce papers, and then took off that day to live with her new lover two states away.
Everyone was shocked and appalled. It was easy to be. The whole sinful mess was right out there, every sordid second of it, complete with a bewildered man suffering under the weight of a broken marriage and the prospect of raising his three grieving children alone.
The sinful wreckage of our own lives – of yours and mine – is hardly ever so visible, if indeed it is visible at all. Most of us, I’m guessing, haven’t had affairs, or debilitating addictions, or murdered anyone. We are fundamentally decent people, we think, and our sins are not the ones that are apt to explode into mortifying public daylight in the way that some others so painfully do.
We think it’s a mercy that they don’t. Sometimes I wonder.
I often think of things like deceit, wicked thoughts, slander, malice, pride, selfishness, and arrogance as “invisible sins.” God despises these things – He makes it clear in His word that He hates them as much as anything else – but they are easy to disguise, to deny, and to hide. A little bit of arrogance won’t often blow up spectacularly in public the way that, say, infidelity does. The cruel thing you think in the privacy of your own mind in your own home likely isn’t going to be exposed to your entire congregation.
And I think it skews our perspective. If we’re honest, we don’t often view those sins as particularly harmful – if we’re playing nice on the outside and if no one else knows, what does it matter what we think in private moments? So what if you look down on Suzanne, as long as you treat her the way God wants you to? And if you take a few moments every day to congratulate yourself for being a better teacher or scholar or thinker than most other Christians you know, well, it’s not like they’ll ever hear about it.
Here’s the peril: I don’t think we value the forgiveness of those sins. I don’t think we value it nearly as much as we value the forgiveness of the really big, bad, blown-up-in-your-face-in-front-of-God-and-everyone sins. Man, we say, she abandoned her husband and her children and then she came back and repented and God forgave her! What amazing grace! But when God forgives you for the thing you thought that no one else knows about, or for the secret pride you have that fosters arrogance in your heart, it seems small and normal and mundane. Of course God would forgive something like that, we think. It’s not that big a deal.
But it is a big deal. Those sins divide you from God as much as adultery or murder or anything else you can imagine. That God forgives you for those things – that a holy God who cannot tolerate sin would have sacrificed His son in order to permit you access to Him that you never should have had and do not deserve – is enormous. That God loves you in spite of those things is awe-inspiring.
In the parable of the debtor, Jesus reminds us that “whoever has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). When we think of grand forgiveness, it’s easy to think of the Bible’s shining examples of sin: prostitutes, Christ-deniers, murderers, liars, thieves. But if we think of our own sin as bearing such heaviness, then grace begins to impact us more directly.
Which is as it should be. The enormity of the forgiveness offered to us is what upholds the character we are meant to have as Christians. Our humility comes from us recognizing that we are the worst of the worst. Our ability to love others and forgive them anything comes from recognizing that God has forgiven us for the most horrible kind of anything. Our status in grace, our position as believers, our promised heaven and our certain sainthood comes from recognizing the precariousness of souls poised on the edge of ruin and redeemed only by God’s hand.
When the public sin blows up – as it does, as it will – don’t be awed by it. Your sins, lived out in dark and secret where they are allowed to foster and grow, are no better and no different. They are the same. That God forgives them at all – forgives us at all – is the grand miracle on which our behavior must be predicated.