Some Christians spend more time feeling like a criminal before God than a child of God. I have talked with people who beat themselves into a pulp thinking about their own sin. They rehearse their sin over and over in their mind and pile themselves with guilt and shame. And as they continue to do this, they eventually reach a point where they question whether it is even possible for God to love them.
Now don’t get me wrong, we should mourn over our sin. That’s why Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4), and James says, “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” (James 4:9). In fact, I’d rather a person mourn over their sin than be unphased by it. But mourning should not be our only or final response to our sin.
Use the Pain of Sin to Direct You to Your Hope in Christ
In Romans 7, Paul finds himself in a similar situation as he rehearses his frustrations over his sins. Listen to his honesty,
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing… O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:15; 18; 19; 24).
What a sobering reflection. But here is what is interesting about these verses. Paul doesn’t stop here. He says, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Amen, I can relate to that! But then he says, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25). Don’t miss what just happened. He lets the full weight of his sinfulness settle in, but rather than staying there, he directs his mind to the hope he has in Christ. This is highly instructive for us.
It is not wrong to cry out and confess, “O wretched man that I am!” Perhaps it would even be better if we said that more often. But it is wrong, dear Christian, to stop there; to not finish that thought like Paul does. Because if you stop there, what are you fixed on? You’re fixed on self rather than on Christ. When that happens, the solution to your personal sin also runs the risk of becoming self-oriented. I’ve witnessed this play out in a couple of ways. Some will strive for moral perfection. But since they soon find out that’s impossible, they find themselves in a perpetual state of remorse and self-condemnation. Others try to leverage their self-condemnation as a mark of piety before God as if it will serve as some form of atonement for their sin. These self-oriented solutions do not provide much hope and only leave us where we began: “O wretched man that I am!” Underneath these ways of handling personal sin is a belief that God’s love is conditioned upon our moral performance rather than on who we are in Christ.
We must remember that the same gospel that God called us to hope in at conversion is the same gospel He calls us to hope in throughout the entirety of our Christian lives. We need to continually view our sins through the lens of the gospel and our position in Christ. This does not mean that we make light of sin or brush over it. We should grow in our understanding of the depth of our sin and rightly mourn over it. But as we do, we need to recognize that as deep as our sin goes, God’s grace to us in Christ runs deeper.
The problem then with self-condemners and self-loathers is not that they go too far in the process of acknowledging their sin, it is that they don’t go far enough to consider the hope they have in Christ. Yes, please grasp the full weight of your sin. But don’t stop short of Christ.
Rest in God’s Verdict instead of Your Own
I find it amazing that one of the most sobering laments over personal sin (Romans 7) gives way to one of the greatest chapters of hope in the Bible (Romans 8). I don’t think this is a coincidence. Paul shows us that our personal sin is meant to lead us to a deeper sense of our hope in Christ.
This is why Paul’s mind naturally goes to this wondrous truth just two verses later: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). There is no more wrath left over! There is not a drop of condemnation that God has reserved for those who are in Christ. When Christ took the cup of God’s wrath in your place, he drank it in full. When Christ said it is finished, He meant it.
So, just because you feel that God despises you or has withdrawn His love from you does not mean that He has. Our justification is a judicial reality whereby God frees us from guilt and declares us righteous in Christ. Thankfully, this reality is not dependent upon our own emotions or perception but on the blood of Christ. It doesn’t matter how strongly my son feels that there is a monster under his bed. His feelings can be as strong as they want to be, but they cannot change the reality that there is indeed no monster. In that same way, you can feel condemned, but that doesn’t mean that you are. “For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:20).
The truth of the matter is that you cannot be any more righteous or loved in God’s eyes than you already are in Christ. No matter how negative your thoughts are about yourself, the verdict belongs to God, not you. What do you think speaks louder before God –the blood of Christ or your self-condemning thoughts? The blood of Christ! God’s assessment of you in Christ is more accurate and authoritative than your assessment of yourself in your sin. Furthermore, Christ presently lives to intercede on your behalf (Hebrews 7:25). This means that while you’re busy making accusations against yourself, Christ is ensuring that no charge, even if it arises from yourself, can ever be brought against you (Romans 8:34).
It is entirely possible to feel the full weight of your sin while resting fully in the hope of Christ. In fact, I would argue that it is only by acknowledging the severity of our sin that we can ever reach a fuller appreciation for what Christ has done for us. So, by all means lament over your sin. But never forget to rest in the forgiving and interceding arms of your Savior.