I noticed it when I was reading a book by a Christian author yesterday.
Back in college, she admitted, even though I was a Christian I shamed the Lord with my lifestyle. She never alluded to the events directly, but gave the readers enough salient details that we could sketch out the bigger picture: alienation from God, sinful living, lack of repentance.
Back then. You know, in college. When she was younger. Not now.
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that one of the great commonalities of many Christian authors I read is that most of them seemed to be sinning back then too. You know, years ago. When they were Christians. In college. In their wild and misspent youth. You know, back then. When they were younger. Not now.
I’m not exempt from it. When I reference sin, I almost always reference the sin I struggled with in the distant past. Man, I write, back then I was so headstrong with God. I was so unrepentant. We all have this habit. And even believers who are not writers – those who speak in small groups or in church or who try to be “authentic” – often share it, too. We all reference serious sin in our Christian life as an experience in the rearview mirror, something that affected us badly once long ago. But not now.
There are reasons for this, and chief among them I suspect is that no one really wants to admit that they are still the same sinners now as they were back in college. The fact that every public Christian paints a similar picture contributes to the myth that as believers we are always on this perpetual ascent toward righteousness, shedding sin after sin as we go along. Everything awful we’ve done is always in the distant past, and we pretend our current selves are always an improvement on what came before.
But the problem with this is that we are still sinning. Right now. Today. Even while we write our Christian books and speak in front of our small groups. Sure, maybe the sins are different: back then, you sowed your wild oats in a lifestyle that was not Christlike and today you simply snapped at your wife over a bowl of Cheerios. Back then, you gave in to the temptation of alcohol and today you said some nasty words about your coworker behind her back. By some standards, I guess that’s an improvement…
…except God says it’s not.
Sin is sin. Sin is unholiness. “I tell you,” said Jesus in a sermon that I imagine must have scared the pants off everyone listening, “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. …and anyone who says ‘you fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matt 5:22). Stabbing your brother or sister in the heart, or just verbally attacking them: same difference. Thoughts versus actions, intentions versus realizations – it doesn’t matter. Sin is sin. Yes, we can look back from our current vantage point and see that we dropped one particular sin. That’s good. But may I ask you what it is you’ve picked up or noticed in the meantime?
It’s more than a little disingenuous to pretend that our ‘worst’ sins are always something that we recovered from a while back, the remnants of a time long-ago in early Christian-hood before we became the strong believers we are now. As Christians who are simultaneously clothed in the righteousness of Christ and yet bear the nature of sinful man, we live in constant tension: we are redeemed and forgiven, and our sins are removed from us, and yet we do sin and we will sin, even when we don’t want to. In the words of Paul:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. (Romans 7:15-20).
It’s not wrong to talk about sins that happened in the past, and you should and can boast in the Lord when He delivers you from those and keeps you from returning to them. Nor should believers stop pursuing greater righteousness in their own lives. But when we say that, I think it’s worth being honest about the rest of it, too – that some of our sins might be in the rearview mirror, but all of them aren’t. We still struggle with flesh daily, even the strongest of us.
When I was a younger believer, I’ll admit that I was often daunted by the “strong Christians” around me. They always had sinned but never seemed to be sinners: their failures always seemed to be in the past. As I knew them, they seemed like glowing beacons of righteousness, little Elijahs waiting to be swept away by God’s holy chariot. Now, as a believer with many years behind me, I know the truth:
We have sinned. We still sin. We just tend to talk about the first more than the second.
I’m not telling you to sit down and list out all of your current struggles and failures. But just acknowledging that you do struggle and that you do fail – even you, even now – will go a long way toward demonstrating the depths of God’s grace to others, and illustrating what it means to live a life struggling against the desires of the sinful nature while redeemed and clothed in the righteousness of Christ.
Our sin does not live in the distant past, even though we talk about it as though it does. We still struggle, still fail, and while our sins may not “seem” as big as they were it’s worth remembering that sin is sin is sin. Like Paul, we must acknowledge that we do all the things we don’t want to do, fighting as we are against the curse of our sinful nature.
And, like Paul, we must recognize that our salvation comes not in any improvement we can claim for ourselves, but rather in the fact that “Therefore, 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 sins are in the rearview mirror. Others, unfortunately, are still sitting in the passenger seat.
God’s grace covers all.