I don’t know why, but whenever I heard the word “conviction” as a child and teenager – in the sense that the Lord was convicting someone about sin or sinfulness – I always thought of a stack of heavy iron bars dropping down from above onto someone’s heart. Thud. Maybe it’s because the word and the concept seemed so heavy: the fullness of God’s righteousness weighing down upon small and sinful you.
I also grew up into my adulthood conceiving of conviction as an experience that happened from time to time when it was called for, not as a perpetual process. No one was constantly under conviction, as far as I was aware; the chiding of the Holy Spirit came when you did something deliberately wrong or bad or strayed too far off the path. In that sense, the Spirit seemed to operate a little like the alarm on the old Operation game. Touch the edges of the box with the tweezers and buzz. Stray too far into sinfulness and buzz. Conviction, I believed, happened when you were headed in the wrong direction – it was the Holy Spirit’s way of calling you back.
I do believe that holy conviction can occur in those ways. Any believer who has willfully sinned and who must confront that sin in the presence of God knows that falling-iron-bar sensation too well. It’s the uneasiness of being an unholy creature before a holy God; it is surely what David must have felt when, confronted by Nathan with the scale of his wrongdoing, managed to choke out: “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13). And I believe that the Holy Spirit’s urgent calls for us to come back grow louder and more heavily on the heart the more we stray if our hearts have not been hardened.
But I also believe conviction can operate more subtly, more helpfully, and far more meaningfully than I believed it to in my younger years.
Because the thing is, I’ve become more acquainted with my sin lately. More to the point, I’ve become reacquainted with my sinful nature. I don’t know quite why God has been leading me in this retrospective, but in my time with Him lately I’ve been looking back at what I perceived to be some of the most spiritually fruitful, living-in-God’s-pocket times in my life – and realizing that while I was fruitful at those times I was also selfish, and prideful, and a gossiper. I was sinning then. I was sinful. He used me, and He let me grow close to Him, but I was sinful.
And now, in the day to day, I’m catching myself more. The snide comment on the tip of the tongue. The nasty thought. The arrogant self-regard. The hypocrisy. A few key incidents have revealed to me that I’m sinning in ways I didn’t even realize. It’s all there in a thousand different ways, and though my older self would have found that discouraging, or would have drowned in guilt over it, I currently find myself oddly grateful and comforted.
For whatever reason, I am going through a season of conviction.
Because conviction isn’t just the buzz that happens to alert you that you’ve strayed off the path. Conviction isn’t just the heavy weight you feel after you did A Very Sinful Thing. Conviction isn’t just a moment. It can’t be, because sin is not just a moment. We are not saintly believers who sometimes stray off the path and sin. We are sinners whom God has plucked from the path of sin and placed on the road to grace. As such, conviction can be a process, a perpetual state of being, and it can happen to Christians who are very close to God. Who are growing. Who are headed in the right direction. God corrects the child “in whom He delights” (Proverbs 3:12). And Job says happy is the man whom God reproves (Job 5:17).
If you are walking closely with God, conviction is going to be a natural byproduct. You’ll see sin in yourself – and then more sin after that, both now and in the past. Seeing more of who He is will show you more of who you are, and who you are isn’t always pretty. Rather than a falling iron bar, conviction is often a subtle but powerful reorientation brokered by the Holy Spirit:
I’m a mess. Look at everything I’m doing, or have done. I am, as Paul said, chief of sinners. No matter what I do or try to do, I live in sin.
Knowing this, God loved me. Knowing this, Christ died so that I could take on His righteousness. Knowing this, I can walk confidently and in gratitude – striving to be more and more righteous daily, but knowing that who I am and what I will receive in the future is bound up in His grace, love, and sacrifice.
That’s why conviction doesn’t have to be scary. Sometimes it’s just a gentle reminder of reality – of who you are, and of who God is, and of how it is that we’re allowed to walk alongside Him. Rather than produce guilt or fear, or rather than bludgeon us or terrify us into returning to God, it ought to produce gratitude and deep joy: if you notice your sinful nature, if you’re aware of it, if the thought of it pains you, then God is working in and on you.
As a child, I made the mistake – and sometimes still do, as an adult – of believing that conviction was reserved for Christians who had just really gone beyond the pale, who were sinning more egregiously or dangerously than other Christians. Not so. Conviction is a perpetual, subtle process, the evidence of God dealing with us to make us who He wants us to be.
Embrace it. It’s nothing to be scared of.