Doctors, psychologists, government officials and educators all agree that the human heart must be tamed. And almost all the people in these fields start from the premise that the solution to these problems depends on human intelligence, the scientific method, and social and cultural interaction. There is no deity to save us. There are no fixed standards to go by. We must help ourselves.
However, this is a false premise. We can depend on faith in a living God. Our problems are the result of deviation from His standards, otherwise called sin. It is true; we cannot help ourselves. But God has made provision for such a change. We need a change of heart as a starting point.
Only God can help you harmonize your actions with your inner life. If we could help ourselves, then Jesus died in vain. The Bible teaches us: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God–through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7:24-25), and “Repentance and remission of sin should be preached in His name to all nations” (Luke 24:47).
Some churches are criticized because their ministers upset people when they preach about the sinfulness of man and the inflexible standards of the Bible. People have often turned to me as a counselor because their pastor has upset them. After listening to him preach about sin, they feel guilty and inadequate. They were much happier people before they began attending church, studying the Bible, and facing the truth. Therefore, could it not be reasonable to conclude that their problems were caused by what they heard and read? To remove the cause would seem the logical way to relieve the person’s anxiety. And this has long been advocated. There is widespread pressure on ministers to preach “positive” messages and to emphasize the good in man.
Wait just a minute, though. Perhaps a look at the methods of another profession may help you understand the value of pointing out the bad, the evil or the negative.
Consider the physician. As he diagnoses you, he has only one basic question: “What’s wrong?” This is certainly a “negative” approach! If 99 percent of you is in good health, your doctor is interested in only the one percent of you that is not. If you have an infected fingernail and the rest of you is healthy, he concentrates on the fingernail. If you have a pain in your abdomen, he does not overlook the abdomen. Instead he examines it thoroughly, even if the examination brings you additional pain.
Why do you put up with such treatment? Because the doctor’s objective is to restore your health. He eventually eliminates sickness and may save you from death by subjecting you to great pain and even the risk of your life on the operating table. It is positive to eliminate the negative. It is healthy to eliminate disease. It is good to eliminate evil.
A neighbor in seemingly good health went to her physician because she developed a slight pain. Investigation revealed a tumor and abdominal surgery was called for. The doctor’s announcement of what was needed not only upset the woman, but her whole family and some people in the neighborhood as well. Why would a man want to subject this fine woman to such an ordeal? Why didn’t he give her a sedative to help her forget the pain? Then no one would have gotten upset. But instead of prescribing a painkiller, he sent her off to a hospital, where her surgery confined her for weeks.
Think of the effect the doctor’s diagnosis and prescription had on the woman’s husband, their children, and their budget. But not a single person condemned the doctor. Quite the contrary, they were all grateful to him. They were appreciative of this person who had delivered such drastic, disturbing news and who had subjected the woman to the pain of a knife and her husband to such great expense. He would have done her a disservice to have acted otherwise.
The diagnosis did not depend on the notions of the physician, but on the condition of the patient’s body. The doctor could not be guided by what the patient wanted to hear; rather, he had to follow the course of his findings. How does a person make the announcement of the need for major surgery a happy occasion? There is no way. What’s important is that the proper diagnosis be made and the patient be told. The patient will get over the shock of the announcement; my neighbor did. Then it was up to her whether she would submit to the prescribed treatment. She could have tried to ignore the pain, kept busy, and attempted to forget about her condition. She might have tried to kill the pain with medication. The other alternative was to accept surgery, which she did.
Now back to the point that ministers are pressured to emphasize the good and the positive because talk of sin and the negative is upsetting and causes anxiety and worry. Of course, the knowledge of sin produces such results. But your present comfort is of little value if there is, in fact, sin in your life. To diagnose sin, however disturbing it may be, is a positive act.
Your minister, counselor, or friend cannot determine what the diagnosis will be. I cannot determine what my client brings to me. If there is selfishness, touchiness, irritability, stubbornness, rebellion, hatred, or deceit within you, it simply is there. I didn’t put it there, but it is my responsibility to point out its presence. This may be upsetting to you, but I have found no other way to cure the problem. I have never known a person to discover the sin that was causing his trouble by my dwelling on his good qualities. And I have never found a way of pointing out a man’s sin to him that makes him clap his hands with joy at the news.
This is why people become disturbed when they hear a minister of the gospel preach on God’s standards for man. The Bible throws light on their conduct; it exposes their souls. The truth is often offensive, even if it is shared in a tender, loving fashion. When you are confronted, do yourself a favor and pay attention to the message rather than the manner of the messenger. The messenger may not be following his own advice. But if it is the truth, you would be wise to follow it.
An awareness of sin does not eliminate it or the problems that it causes. The apostle James encourages us with this advice: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was” (James 1:22-24).
How does this change come about? By confessing or acknowledging that you have done wrong, that you have sinned! David wrote this about his sin: “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Psalm 32:5).
To see your own sin is disturbing to you only if you fight what you discover. If, instead, you admit it and seek help from God, the result is not guilt, but an overwhelming sense of forgiveness, cleansing, renewal, and peace. The pathway to spiritual peace is a struggle. Discover the truth about yourself and you will naturally shrink from it. If, however, you become offended and defensive, you will remain in the strong fetters of your sin.
What a difference you will find if you heed the promise of Jesus: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-33).
You will get fleeting glimpses of your true self (and sometimes a very clear picture) as you interact with other people, as you read the Bible, and as others minister to you. Studying the Bible is a sure way to get at the truth about yourself, but it takes some effort, and no one can force you to study it.
As the truth about you emerges from some probing stimulus, you will either face it directly or turn from it. You will mellow or harden, depending on what you choose to do about your discovery.
A young couple came for counsel.
“How is it that at times we can be so cooperative, so tender toward each other, and 15 minutes later so opposed, so hostile, so cold?” asked Marvin, the husband. “How is it possible that we can pray together and feel united in our faith but then we are battling each other over an unexpected issue?”
Marvin then opened the door on their lives to afford a glimpse inside. He remembered the day he and Gloria, his wife, had driven to the city hospital and parked. As they glanced up to the eighth floor, Marvin breathed a prayer for their three-year-old son, who hovered between life and death. “Dear God, we love our boy and we want him, but may Thy will be done. Help Gloria and me to be worthy parents and give Jimmy a happy home.”
At that moment Marvin and Gloria felt closer to each other than at any time in their lives. Carefully he helped her out of the car; arm-in-arm they walked to the door and made their way up to the boy’s room. Jimmy was asleep. A solution of some sort was being fed from a bottle into his arm. The parents looked at their son and their hearts beat as one for him. Marvin felt that he could never speak harshly to the boy again, that he could know no selfishness toward his son.
Jimmy recovered. What joy for Marvin and Gloria to bring him home! But after a week, the feelings Marvin experienced at the hospital had changed. In fact, antagonism toward both his wife and son crept into Marvin’s heart.
The boy had been waited upon night and day in the hospital. After he arrived home, Gloria kept up the pampering.
“When are you going to let him grow up?” Marvin asked his wife.
One evening Jimmy was playing on the floor near the sofa where his parents were reading. He asked his mother to go into the next room and fetch his favorite truck. She put down her magazine and started to get the toy.
“Let him go for it himself, Gloria,” Marvin said.
“I don’t mind getting it for him,” she replied.
Marvin nearly exploded. “You’re spoiling him rotten! All he needs to do is point a finger and you jump.”
Dad insisted that the boy get the toy himself. The child begged and pleaded and began to whine. Gloria became increasingly uncomfortable. Finally she defied her husband and got the truck. Jimmy was happy, but his father was enraged.
After Jimmy went to bed, a silence developed between the parents. Marvin felt quite justified for having taken his stand. Gloria felt Marvin was being too strict. While in the car outside the hospital and by their son’s bedside, they had shared the tenderest of feelings and identical goals. But now they were at complete odds.
Marvin and Gloria needed to face up to a Biblical truth: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).
The couple found it hard to face the truth, even though they were fully aware that their behavior was inconsistent. They knew they were both missing the mark that they had agreed to aim at, but they did not repent of their behavior.
Marvin and Gloria left the counseling session assuring each other of their devotion to a happy marriage. They renewed their vows never to fall short again. But they were soon back. They couldn’t inspire each other to be consistent.
The apostle John wrote in his first epistle:
If we refuse to admit that we are sinners, then we live in a world of illusion and truth becomes a stranger to us. But if we freely admit that we have sinned, we find God utterly reliable and straightforward–He forgives our sins and makes us thoroughly clean from all that is evil. For if we take up the attitude, “we have not sinned,” we flatly deny God’s diagnosis of our condition and cut ourselves off from what He has to say to us.
“But we are Christians,” they pleaded. “What can we do?”
Romans 7 defines sin as the inability to do the good you want to do; it is the drive within you that causes you to do what you don’t want to do (verses 14, 15, and 19). Marvin and Gloria have moments when they are angrily opposed to each other. Yet when they try to face the truth, they deny it and attempt to reassure each other that all is well. But it isn’t. They want peace, but they fight the process that leads to peace. They fail to take advantage of one of the important benefits of marriage–self-discovery. Because the tendency is to fight against such discovery, many find marriage distasteful. They do not like to be reproved, even if the criticism is true.
The same holds true regarding work, social, and church relationships. George’s story illustrates this point. George wanted to clear up the gnawing sense of anxiety and growing unhappiness that plagued him, and hoped to do so before anyone else found out about his condition. So he quietly sought professional counseling. He would rather have died than have his associates learn that he was bored with church and its activities, dissatisfied with his wife, and annoyed with his fellow employees at work.
But the counseling experience was a shattering one. The counselor pressed him to share his antagonisms, and George did not like it. He insisted he had no antagonisms. He stoutly maintained that since he was a Christian he loved everyone and was nice to all. Still the counselor probed, and finally George blew his top.
Then George came to see me. He was confused. Was he a Christian or wasn’t he? He had asked God to help him show love to everyone. “Ever since this counselor forced me to blow up,” he said, “I’ve been nasty to a lot of people.” What evil thing, he wanted to know, had the counselor done to him?
What had the counselor done? He had led George to face the truth about himself. What truth? That he was an angry man with hatred in his heart toward the people with whom he worshiped at church, the people he worked with at the office, the members of his own family, and now, the counselor who, he maintained, had caused him to blow his top.
Because George pretended to be a happy man, he wanted to believe that he was one. Since becoming a Christian, he had always acted politely to everyone. His annoyances were his own secret. He controlled himself for the sake of his testimony.
Pretending to be happy didn’t make George so. He was only being true to human form. George told himself that he was a nice, loving, happy man. But he refused to recognize the deceit of his heart. What the counselor had done was to expose George to himself and lay open the falseness of his heart. He made George see that his smooth, soft words covered a bitter war raging inside, that they sheathed the swords of hate and malice.
George might have discovered this truth for himself. Like the fever that warns that all is not well in the body, the gnawing sense of uneasiness in his relationships with others ought to have made him aware that all was not well between him and the people in his life. But George disregarded the symptoms, denying the truth. He could not admit to himself that there was anything in his heart but love.
George had a choice to make as he became aware of the bitterness and strife deep within: he could either deal with it, or simply put on a facade. George was proud of his acting ability. “Usually I control my anger,” he said. “Don’t I get any credit for that?” His ability to act lovingly toward others presented an impressive testimony; but it did not satisfy him. As he became aware that he was only acting, the truth shook him up; he began to lose the control that he had held so tightly.
“I’m confused. Why doesn’t God give me peace?” he asked.
Look at what the Bible says about a person who lets sin lurk in his heart: “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2)
Repentance is rare. We like to defend ourselves. Time after time George insisted he was an innocent man. He said the fault lay with the conduct of the people around him, including the counselor who goaded him. Nevertheless, the facts of his case contradicted him. His iniquities separated him from God and denied him peace from God. Then one day George admitted that maybe he did lack love for certain people. But if he did, he asked petulantly, why didn’t God give it to him? Now he blamed God for his anger.
When you get a glimpse of your true nature, your inclination will probably be to dodge the truth. But be aware that when you deny what you find in the recesses of your life, anxiety and unhappiness will slowly envelop you in their tentacles. It is only when you acknowledge your sin and confess it to God that you will be free of the power that it holds over you and the effects that it has on your life. Stop looking at others, and start examining your own heart and mind. Rid yourself of your own sinful attitudes and experience God’s blessing and peace.