Several weeks ago I was counseling someone who had been battling with a particular area of sin for years. At one point in the conversation this person said, in some real anguish, "But surely God must know that I cannot change this!" In that brief sentence he revealed both the root of his problem and its ultimate solution.
This man wanted God to be merciful to him, but it was clear in that conversation that he thought God's mercy would have to come in the form of an exception: Yes, it is wrong to do this, but God will just have to excuse me for it, make an exception in my case, because I cannot change.
At least he was not choosing the more radical solution, a solution all too popular today, which goes something like this: No mater how hard I try, I cannot seem to conquer this area of sin. And a lot of other people are just like me. We are good-hearted, try to be decent, make efforts not to (fill in the blank with your own favorite unconquerable sin), but cannot master this problem. Therefore, it must not really be wrong. Or at least, it isn't wrong for me.
No, this man was not taking that fatal turn in the road, but he was just the same surrendering to sin. His surrender did not involve a complete redefinition of sin, but it did give up a part of his life to the power of sin. He realized that he did not have the strength to defeat this sin, so, in the place of obedience to God, he would offer his excuses ("I am too weak.!")
Haven't we all found ourselves in this same position at least once in our life? Haven't we all encountered the strength of sin in such a way that we finally cry out, "Surely God mus know that I cannot change this?" Anyone who has sincerely decided to follow the Lord and live a life of righteousness has encountered the overpowering mastery of sin, and in that encounter discovered as well his or her own weakness.
Well then, isn't that a pretty good excuse? "The problem is not with me, everyone else has failed too. Let's face it, even thought we do our best, and on the whole live a pretty decent life, we are just going to have areas where we have to accept that we can't avoid sin. In the place of complete obedience God will have to accept some sin, for which we have a pretty good excuse".
When I was a child, lives of saints were pretty popular among Catholic kids (and Catholics in general), an I read my share. Those people were amazing. I admired them greatly, but the flickers of holy zeal to be just like them were quickly snuffed out by my almost daily failures to live a holy life. I admired them, but I could not be like them, because I just wasn't like them. Somehow, they managed to get born, or raised, or something, without the weakness I had.
Whether because of the way they were written or because of my own ignorance, I drew the wrong lesson from those books when I was a child. All of those people were just like me in their weaknesses. Some of them had perhaps greater weaknesses than I. But they understood an important principle: God does not accept excuses; he give grace.
The man I was counseling a few weeks ago said, j"Surely God must understand that I cannot change this!" And he was right. God does understand that. But God gives grace to change what we cannot change -- if we are willing to maintain the ongoing battle against sin with all of its humiliating defeats. Ten or 15 or 30 years of continuous, unsuccessful struggle against sin seems to us to be a record of failure -- the complete opposite of a life of holiness. But if we resist the temptation to abandon the struggle, if we refuse to make excuses for our sin and instead repent each time and ask God for grace, then God in his mercy will make us holy.
The holiness we seek does not consist of human perfection or strength of will. It is a gift of God, a share of his own nature,, a union with him that only he can produce. It is as far above and beyond our best efforts to obey and live righteously as the heavens are above the earth. Nothing that we can do and no effort that we can make is sufficient to produce true holiness. Only God can do that.
We have been put in a crucible, every one of us, a purifying test by fire that God uses to do what we cannot do. For in the circumstances of our daily lieves, again and again we must choose to believe in and obey God's word, and to confront the humiliating reality of our own sinfulness, which is revealed in our failures. We can escape this struggle if we wish. We can avoid the humiliation of repentance by making our excuses. But if we do that, we will find in the end that we have surrendered ourselves to a far more humiliating slavery to sin.
"Surely God must know that I cannot change this!" Yes, God knows it, and he knows that in this you are no different from every other man, woman, and child, yet he has called us nonetheless to holiness. We do not have to offer God excuses for not being holy. We need simply to continually turn to him in humble and trustful repentance, and let him through his grace, clothe us in his own holiness.
(c) 1997 Bruce Yocum