Many people don't attend church because they think they're not good enough to hang around perfect people. Others who do attend often hide under a cloak of shame and guilt mistakenly thinking that people in the pews around them have their life together while they know they themselves struggle with defects of character for which they feel they would be judged if anyone else really knew who they were behind their mask. They listen to sermons that portray a standard of living that they can't seem to live up to and then leave feeling more guilty and ashamed than when they arrived.
I recently heard a preacher ask this question to an audience of several thousand, "How many of you in here have done something you knew was wrong and you swore to God and yourself that you'd never ever do that again; but then you did?" Everybody in the room raised their hand including the preacher. I know as you read this you would also raise your hand; all of us would. We struggle with temptation over and over and over again no matter how long we've been believers in Christ and more times than we'd like to admit we yield. Just because you became a Christian doesn't mean that you're sinless; but it does mean that you can sin less. But it's a process and doesn't happen quickly. It also depends on the type of defects you struggle with and how long you've had that defect as a pattern or habit in your life.
There are different types of people who struggle with alcohol for instance. Some can drink and even get drunk on occasion; but they can quit simply by making a decision to quit. An alcoholic on the other hand, has a different biochemistry and alcohol affects him differently. It creates an insatiable and often irresistible craving that controls him and when he tries to quit on his own he feels like he's insane. He thinks to himself that if he only had enough will-power he could quit; but he can't on his own; regardless of how many times he's resolved never to drink again. Other chemical addictions play a similar game on those who are trapped in the helpless cycle trying to recover.
I heard of a woman who was a prostitute and called a church counselor in Colorado Springs trying to reach out for some resemblance of a relationship with God. She asked, "If I come to church will I have to stop sleeping with men?" The counselor said "yes." Her next question revealed the hunger in her heart that needed to be filled, "But if I can't have sex, how will I ever feel like somebody loves me?" Instead of accepting his invitation to come to church; he never heard from her again. What if the church was the place that people felt they could get genuine love and acceptance in spite of their defects and in the process they would be welcomed with open arms and helped to honestly deal with those temptations and destructive thoughts? Jesus was friends with sinners and sought them out and was criticized for doing so. If we are to be like Him, we'll seek out sinners as well and point them to the Great Physician who can heal their hurts, habits and hang-ups.
Three Categories of Defects
There are different categories of sin, each as deadly, but we view them differently and judge people with a different standard when they struggle with them. I saw a church sign recently on Social Media that said, "Don't be so hard judging another person's sin because it's different than your own!" Three categories of sin that Paul identified are: 1) Sensual Sins, 2) Social Sins, and 3) Spiritual Sins. Let's explore them.
Sensual sins include drunkenness, sexual immorality and gluttony. We tend to recognize those who struggle with these defects immediately; except the sin of gluttony. For some reason that one never get's mentioned as a defect especially since most of us in the West are slaves to it. The city of Corinth was known for its indulgence in sensual sins and many in the church struggled with these defects even after becoming believers.
Social sins are, in my opinion, some of the most destructive; yet get very little serious attention. Among the list in this category are gossip, slander, envy, jealousy, rage, malice, outbursts of anger, etc. I've witnessed churches divide and relationships shattered by those who struggle with these defects, and yet they aren't addressed as seriously as sensual sins. Those who struggle with these defects are often the most judgmental on those who struggle with sensual sins. Jesus told a parable about these people who think they are better than others. "To some who were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable. "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed, "God I thank you that I am not like other people - robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God have mercy on me, a sinner.' "I tell you this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted," (Luke 18:9-14).
Spiritual sins would include witchcraft, sorcery, seyonces, astrology, and covetousness or greed which the Bible calls 'idolatry.' Have you ever heard someone challenged for being covetous or greedy? It's one of the Ten Commandments, but for some reason in our culture we excuse it as someone driven to succeed. There are people who struggle with these defects and from reading the history of the city of Ephesus in Acts 18 and the letter to the Ephesians one can see the evidence of this spiritual temptation. This temptation ensnared the nation if Israel more than any other and led to their ultimate demise in the Old Testament.
Recovery Help Required
The church should not be thought of as a showcase for saints and a place you have to get it all together before you come; but as a hospital for recovering sinners.The Bible term for our recovery is Sanctification - which means being made holy or transformed into the image of God. Justification is a one-time transaction that wipes away our sins. Sanctification is the life-long process by which the Spirit transforms a believer. It's the process of recovery from our addiction to the sinful nature.
Each of us is at a different stage in our recovery and sometimes we relapse - often multiple times over and over again. If we keep those defects secret, then like a toxic mold or bacteria, they fester and grow in the closet of darkness, entangling us deeper in the trap of insanity. Let's explore how the addresses this dilemma.
- Jesus' Attitude toward People
As you read through the Gospels you witness Jesus continually reaching out and befriending people with a lot of defects - the tax collectors, the woman at the well with five failed marriages and shacking up with a guy she left in her bed that morning, the sinful woman - possibly a prostitute - who washed his feet with her tears; and the list goes on. I find it interesting that the Son of God was condemned by the religious leaders because he wasn't religious enough and he called people whose lives were all messed up - "friends." He was the Great Physician and a doctor to those who were sin-sick. Shouldn't the church be the hospital for sin-sick people in recovery so they can be healed by the Great Physician?
- Paul's Struggle and Instruction
"We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 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 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. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin." (Romans 7:14-25)
Paul describes the dilemma of struggling with our defects perfectly and we all feel the same way, don't we? So why should we expect anyone else to feel differently? This illustrates my point; The church is a hospital for recovering sinners and each of us is at a different stage in our recovery and sometimes we relapse! That's the point Paul is here making.
In his instruction to the churches, Paul reminds them that dealing with our defects is a process of taking off the old man and putting on the new man created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Take off that defect and replace it with a godly character or practice. "Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, instead they must work with their own hands that they may have something to share with those in need." If you've been a liar, start telling the truth. If you've been drunk with wine, now be filled with the Spirit and replace that defect with love, joy, patience, goodness, kindness etc.
- We Can't Do it Alone
"Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed," (James 5:16). This doesn't say just confess your sins to God, it requires another trusted person. Prayer offered for one another is not so that we are forgiven; it's so we can be healed. For a defect to be healed it has to be brought into the light with another person whom you love and trust with your deepest and darkest secrets. A mistake would be to confess your sins to someone who might judge you instead of be your friend in spite of your defect. And, it's a two-way street.
"Bear one another's burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ," (Galatians 6:2). Dealing with our own sinful nature is a horrible struggle on our own. But when I can open up about my deepest struggles with another whom I trust in confidentiality, then my burden is lifted as we carry each other's burdens.
"Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves or you also may be tempted," (Galatians 6:1-2). The idea here is that if someone is trapped, ensnared and unable to escape from a sin or temptation, then another person who lives by the Spirit should help restore that person gently. To open the jaws of a trap and release a leg can be a painful experience and requires a lot of healing and gentleness for an extended period of time.
Some issues we can deal with ourselves, but many require another person or persons to be in a strong, authentic, confidential relationship with us. Each person should have a best spiritual friend with whom they can be totally transparent and honest and who will be a friend who loves at all times. No one can help an alcoholic like another alcoholic in recovery. No one can help someone dealing with grief like another who has experienced the same grief. A tragedy occurs when a person betrays a confidence or condemns another because of their faults.
Putting it all Together
We must remember who we are. We are fatally flawed creatures who struggle with defects that we wish we didn't have; but we do! We need a safe place in relationships where we can take all the masks off and let another person or persons love us in spite of ourselves. We are not so much brothers in our virtue but in our defects, and in our willingness to be open and deal with them together.