The plan was to fly out to the Northwest to solo hike the Olympic Peninsula but through a series of unforeseen events I found myself, instead, on the West Coast, staying with a family I had never met.
These Christians were well versed in theology, had suffered greatly, and were incredibly hospitable. Within a few hours after meeting the husband I had a room, a car, a meal, and now a cigar as we sat together in the backyard with his family. I know, I know!
Somewhere in that conversation a dangerous and elusive way of thinking emerged, just breaking the surface and for some reason, I reached out, grabbed it, and pulled it out into the open. What happened next was one of the toughest/best talks with others and with myself I’ve ever had.
Here is the gist of the thought and how I put it before my new found friends: After repenting of a deliberately committed sin, how far are we away from Jesus?
They kind of just looked at me, so I stretched out my arms and asked, “This far?”, then brought my hands together, just inches apart, and asked, “or this far?”.
Then to further emphasize, I asked, “Are we five miles from Jesus, still following Him but He is way up the road ahead, or…are we walking next to Him?”.
They were not comfortable with being right next to Jesus.
“He is holy and we are sinners.” They said.
“We are imperfect and Jesus is perfect.” They said.
“We are not worthy of His presence.” They said.
They said all this and more, since they were reformed believers, and they were right.
But even though they were right about their definitions, they were wrong, way wrong, about defining their relationship.
I continued, “How then, if I am five miles from Jesus, do I get closer?”. “Do I try and make up for what I did? If so, that’s penance and we don’t believe in penance, do we?”
They shook their heads. They didn’t believe in penance. They agreed that there is nothing that we can do, of ourselves, to make up for what we do wrong, so as to stay right there with Jesus.
I explained this pseudo-belief.
“Here’s the thing, we all sort-of-believe in the false doctrine of Ineffective Penance. When we sin; we feel bad. We repent and still feel bad even though we know that we are forgiven. We don’t feel forgiven because most of the time the sin that we committed is something that we keep on doing. Since we keep doing the same thing, our confession loses its sense of sincerity. We feel shame. We feel (and think), “Why would God keep forgiving me?”, so we add to our repentance—our own works. We resolve to do better. Prayer, alms-giving, bible study, helping others, etc, all motivated out of a combination of guilt and personal righteousness until we reach a point where we feel better about our relationship with Jesus, like, He’s right there again, because we caught up.”
They nodded in agreement. Sad eyes all around.
I spoke of the apostle Paul’s argument that where sin abounds, grace abounds so much more. I reminded them that Romans chapter eight begins with, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” and that the chapter ends with nothing able to separate us from the love of God. And then, the clincher from, I John:
…truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.
This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.
Jesus knew that He would be walking with sinners. Didn’t He start with sinners when He called the first disciples to ‘be with Him’? Did He not call the members of this first ragamuffin band, friends?
The mood lightened. More drinks were poured and the setting of the sun slowly brought the evening to an end. I stayed a few more days and then left for home.
Funny, I had planned on spending several days alone on the trail. But now, more than ever, I know that I am never alone.