Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Don’t Hinder Joy by Waiting for Pain and Sorrow To Be Removed

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How often do we think of joy as something that requires the absence of sorrow or pain? We wait and wait for the pain to be taken away so that we can be happy again. As long as the pain remains, we resign ourselves to having to wait for joy to replace it. This gives suffering and sorrow domination over us, while we believe we cannot experience joy until they leave. But it shouldn’t be this way. It is possible to experience deep, sustaining joy even in the middle of sorrow or pain.

Christian joy is not a childlike innocence, unaware of the troubles of the world and therefore undisturbed. Christian joy is a triumphant and victorious declaration that Christ has conquered sin and death, bringing us together with God in a way that can never be separated again. Christian joy reigns over suffering and earthly sorrow. It does not need to wait for them to give way. It is stronger than they are, and can cover them and overwhelm them. Your joy can be stronger than your sorrow even while the sorrow remains. Paul could say he was “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” all at the same time. (2 Cor. 6:10). He could even say “we rejoice in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3), and that he rejoiced in his sufferings for the sake of the Colossians (Colossians 1:24). The Word of God demonstrates that joy in the middle of sorrow is possible and powerful.

As Christians grow and go through the years, we usually discover for ourselves this strange co-existence of suffering and joy. While we are on this earth, the sorrows of this life do not disappear. But we begin to discover that joy can flourish even in the sorrows. This is not to say it is easy. It is often overwhelming and numbing, and we need our friends to bear us up and pray for us and fight through the numbness. Our comfort is knowing for ourselves that even in suffering, joy can break forth and shine. I found Elisabeth Kincaid’s insights in An Elusive Joy at Easter, from her readings of John Henry Newman, to illustrate this beautifully:
Newman gives us permission not to confuse this joy with the sentiment he would most likely dismiss as enthusiasm. Christian joy at Easter does not need to be unalloyed and unrestrained. It is not the joy of children, but rather of convalescents, who are in the process of getting well, who see the promise of health, but are still regaining strength rather than fully healed.
When the crisis is past, the illness over, but strength not yet come, they will go forth to the light of day and the freshness of the air, and silently sit down with great delight under the shadow of that Tree, whose fruit is sweet to their taste.

Kincaid reflects that even the gracious work of healing is not always quick. She recalls Diggory’s mother in C.S. Lewis’s The Magicians Nephew, who is healed by an apple from Aslan in Narnia. But she does not heal quickly. In fact, it is so gradual that at first Diggory is doubtful it is working.

Perhaps we (often, although not always) should expect our healing and our rejoicing to look more like Diggory’s mother. Often, it is too easy for many of us, especially those raised in church cultures that place a high premium on subjective experience, to fear that the perceived lack in our joy is due to our own weakness and sinfulness. While this may at times be true, Newman challenges the belief that it is always true, rejecting the lie that “since it is the Christian’s duty to rejoice evermore, they would rejoice better if they never sorrowed and never travailed with righteousness.”

Sorrowing and struggle are necessary for this joy; they do not preclude it.

Worrying about my own perceived emotional lack — or feeling so overwhelmed by the brokenness of the world around me that I cannot raise my head to rejoice — may not be the solution, and in fact, may be part of the problem. Refusing to let go of my disappointment with my own brokenness and that of the world shows a failure to recognize not only the reality that in this world “the languor and oppression of our old selves” will continue, but also the reality of the new life given me. The solution is not to emote more or blot out the sorrows of this world, but rather to turn in prayer, not inward, but upward.
We must beg Him who is the Prince of Life, the Life itself, to carry us forth into His new world, for we cannot walk thither, and seat us down whence, like Moses, we may see the land, and meditate upon its beauty!

Easter joy does not require us, then, to leave ourselves or the world of this present hour behind. Rather, Easter joy may only come when, like Diggory, we return to the brokenness of this world — and our own and others’ brokenness — with the comfort of Christ’s presence and the instruments of grace that he has provided for us throughout the annual miracle of the paschal season. In this return, perhaps, joy silently comes, wearing a different guise, but deeper and better than anything we can ever expect.

These words prompted a comment from fellow contributor Charlie Clauss: “maybe our task is the active reception of joy.” Instead of trying to get past suffering so we can be joyful, we need to be willing to receive the gift of joy from God right in the midst of our brokenness. And, like Newman says, we pray earnestly for the gift to come.

What we often miss in trying to hide from suffering and isolate joy all by itself is that the deepest joy is formed from being healed and restored. You can be happier because you are renewed than you would be at just being new. Stop and try to think about why you love Christ, without including in your mind anything negative that He has saved you from. Take away what He suffered and what He saved us from, and what is left to show the depth of His love for us? I cannot sum this up more beautifully than Katy Hartman did in 2014:
"Everything that happens on the surface of this dappled planet, from the deepest joy to the most unspeakable tragedy, is a tangle of grief and celebration. We spend our days trying to separate the one from the other, yet we're baffled that we cannot.
"We live between overlapping realities—one broken and another being healed. Joy and sorrow, grief and celebration, cannot be locked away in separate compartments. Yet that's what we try to do. Looking at one without the other means we see only a portion of the whole story of this broken world being healed. When we look at grief on its own we fail to see that God is healing the world through the work of Jesus, that he is making things beautiful and turning darkness into light before us. When we live only in light of reasons to celebrate, as if joy is the only reality, we banish all thoughts of grief and turn a blind eye to the brokenness in ourselves and in the world. We forget how much we have been rescued from, and we ignore the fact that we still need healing. We ought not to be surprised when we find traces of pain in joy or beauty in sorrow, for this is the nature of living in a broken world being redeemed.
"The cross itself is the ultimate example of this intricate web of sorrow and joy. Jesus experienced sorrow incomprehensible, dying a gruesome and lonely death to absorb the entirety of God’s wrath toward evil in our place. This immense suffering is what leads to his ultimate exaltation in Revelation 5:12: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Somehow, this gruesome, tragic event of his crucifixion is the very thing God uses to redeem the arc of history, reconcile sinners to himself, and heal every aspect of the world he created. We were not made to know death or pain or loss, and the cross guarantees that one day, all of creation will be restored to its rightful design."

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Beware of Getting Everything You Wanted

Being offered exactly what you want sounds like a perfect day. What more could you ask for? Well, in some cases, being satisfied with less. Getting everything you wanted is sometimes the worst thing that could happen to you, because when you want something that badly, you don't look for the strings attached to it.

In the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven, Orlando Bloom portrayed a knight and noble named Balian of Ibelin (loosely based on a real historical figure who led the defense of Jerusalem against Saladin in the 12th century, eventually surrendering the city peacefully). Balian is not a heroic or admirable figure in the beginning. He murders a priest in anger because the man ordered the burial of Balian's wife, who had committed suicide, to be done as if she was a lost soul condemned to hell. Balian is then taken under the protection of a crusader and noble who reveals that he fathered Balian on his way through the town many years ago.

On the way to the Holy Land, Balian's father is mortally wounded trying to resist a group hunting down Balian for the murder. He dies on the way to the Holy Land, leaving Balian as the new Baron of Ibelin. Balian arrives in Jerusalem bearing a lot of grief, a past he would rather forget, and essentially friendless. His father's favor with Baldwin IV, king of Jerusalem, and his Marshal, Tiberias, bring Balian into close company with the royal court, and he meets Baldwin's sister Sibylla, who is married to Guy de Lusignan. Sibylla is beautiful and charming, and her husband is a brute and a vicious warmonger, setting up the romantic fascination between Balian and Sibylla.

Balian compounds his moral failures by committing adultery with Sibylla. (So, viewer discretion advised.) But at the same time, he is gaining a sense of purpose and meaning in his life from taking over his father's legacy in caring for the land of Ibelin and in seeking peace and justice in Jerusalem. Balian has a stained past, but he wants to be a good man. He has found something to live for and admire in the teachings of his friend, a priest who accompanied his father, and the ideals of Baldwin IV and Jerusalem. Balian becomes more heroic and noble as the story progresses, growing into his role as a benevolent noble and leader.

At the same time, Guy de Lusignan has made himself a massive danger to Jerusalem, because he and his knights won't stop raiding and murdering Muslims under the protection of Saladin. Guy wants war with Saladin, whereas Baldwin has maintained an unsteady peace. Guy defies the king and commits repeated war crimes. One night, Balian is summoned to meet with Baldwin and Tiberias. They ask him bluntly, "Would you marry Sibylla, if she were free?" Balian hesitates and then asks what would have happened to her husband, Guy, to make her free to marry. They tell him that Guy would be tried for his atrocities and crimes, and executed. There is little question that he deserves it. It seems to be a perfect solution for all of them: Balian gets the woman he desires, Sibylla gets a happy marriage and the man she loves, Guy is justly punished and no longer a threat, and Baldwin gets peace and protection for Jerusalem.

Balian's response is the most noble moment in the entire film. He realizes that what he is being asked to join in is approving the execution of a man so that he can have the man's wife. Although Guy deserves execution, it is clear that Baldwin will not have him executed unless he has Balian's assurance that Balian will take his place and pledge his knights to defend Jerusalem. Without that, Baldwin won't risk the loss of Guy's knights. Guy is not being judged for his crimes alone; Baldwin wants the support of Guy unless he can have the support of someone to replace him. It is clear that unless Balian agrees, Guy will not be executed. Which means that Balian agreeing to marry Sibylla will be the act that brings about Guy's death.

Balian quietly replies, "Jerusalem is a kingdom of conscience, or it is nothing," and he refuses.

If you cannot receive what you want without compromising your convictions or integrity to get it, there is only one right answer: no. The tragedy for most people who compromise is that they did not set out to do evil in order to get something. They were faced with choices that offered them something they desperately wanted, and only implied a little breaking of the rules.

Temptation almost always promises just a tiny budge in order to get what you want. And many people give in without admitting to themselves that they are compromising. Unfortunately, when you look back after several small steps, you realize just how far across the line you have come. And it is often very hard to go back. In The Pilgrim's Progress, it was very easy for Christian to leave the path and take a shortcut; it was extremely hard and miserable for him to try to get back to the path again. The devil will always make the way into sin easy.

This is exactly what C.S. Lewis predicts about the path to temptation, shame, and dishonor in The Inner Ring:

To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

This slow fade is just what Scripture warns about: "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death." (James 1:14-15). Don't make a habit of asking yourself whether the choice you're making today will make you a bad man or woman. Ask yourself what the choice you're making today is giving birth to. What are you feeding by making this choice, and what are you neglecting? Or, what are you planting and watering? "For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life." (Galatians 6:8). There is clear warning in Scripture that little choices make sins grow.

The antidote for all of this is certainly caution: "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life." (Proverbs 4:23). But it is also trust. James 1:14-15 is followed by James 1:17, which reminds us that every good gift and every perfect gift comes from above, from God. If something is worth having, we can trust God to give it to us. We don't need to make compromises to go after it ourselves. If it's good for us, it will come from the Father's hand in time. Trusting God to meet your needs is the way to resist the temptation to take things for yourself. And it wouldn't hurt to take Alice Henderson's advice in Catherine Marshall's Christy: "They were training their wills in the only way a will can be trained: by practicing giving up what we happen to want at the moment." We give it up in order to wait for something better from God: a satisfaction without regret.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Forgiveness Is Free; Sincerity and Repentance May Take Some Work

Easter should leave us all with fresh enthusiasm for the freedom from guilt and shame that Christ paid for on the cross. I hope the last few days have been filled for you with hearing the free grace of God preached and proclaimed. The forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ, and not through trying to work off a debt or earn acceptance, is one of the greatest joys we will ever know.

However, when anyone preaches the free grace of God that removes all the guilt of your sins, sooner or later people get nervous and uncomfortable with this lavish, free forgiveness of every wrong. If forgiveness is that easy, then what will keep us from giving into temptations when they come up again? Some people start to think this is too simple to be true: that people could just take advantage of God and keep indulging whatever desires they wanted if this were so. Just run back to God afterward to say “I’m sorry,” and you’re in the clear. Some people mock Christianity for this very reason, thinking it is too shallow and naïve for letting people get right with God by just apologizing after they do wrong. This also convinces some Christians that it can’t be that easy, that there must be more required of us in order to prove our real regret and repentance to God.

But it’s not as simple as it appears. Forgiveness is free to everyone who confesses what they have done wrong and wants to be healed. But if you do not have a heart that is sorry for doing wrong, forgiveness is absolutely unaffordable. It is completely out of your price range if you aren’t sincere in repenting of sin. There’s no way for you to purchase it. What people miss when they mock the free grace of God in forgiving sins, or when they doubt it and try to earn forgiveness instead, is that God judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart. He knows whether you mean it. He doesn’t need proof. He doesn’t weigh your efforts to earn forgiveness, but He does weigh the sincerity of your regret and desire to change.

The new covenant Christ brought about by His death and resurrection has been called the “covenant of grace,” compared with the "covenant of works" that required perfect obedience under the Mosaic law. Richard Sibbes describes the new measure of obedience: “The law is sweetened by the gospel, and becomes delightful to the inner man (Rom. 7:22). Under this gracious covenant, sincerity is perfection.” (The Bruised Reed, Ch. 6). God established a new covenant for exactly this reason: no one was capable of keeping the law without sin. But God does give us the ability to choose sides with Him against sin, and to renounce our sinful actions. The new covenant only requires that we sincerely turn away from sin.
The words used for repentance in Scripture contain the idea of turning away from one thing to embrace another. We turn from sin to God. We turn from evil to good. Kevin DeYoung described it like this: "Some of us become Christians and just go on our merry way, never thinking of sin, while others fixate on our failings and suffer from despair. One person feels no conviction of sin; the other person feels no relief from sin. Neither of these habits should mark the Christian. The Christian should often feel conviction, confess, and be cleansed." Or as DeYoung says more simply: "Repentance is more than a repeated apology." It must be a change of heart.

Luther’s first statement in the 95 Theses is: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
A life of repentance doesn’t have to look impressive outwardly to be sincere. Expecting people to give something up or do something difficult to prove their sincerity doesn’t guarantee sincerity. Yes, if you are sincere and really want forgiveness, you will probably be willing to make sacrifices to receive it. But insincere people are often just as likely to do this. This is exactly what the Pharisees and scribes did, and what Jesus rebuked them for doing. They had figured out that if they made all the right motions of worship, they could get a reputation for holiness and obedience without actually having to live by it. But it gave them no traction before God.
If you just go before God seeking forgiveness because you want Him to pay off your tab so you can go sin again without consequences, well, Jesus predicted rather terrifying things for those who thought this was working for them: “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matthew 15:7-9)
This kind of insincere, two-faced worship is utterly rejected by God. No one sneaks a free pass on sin by just saying, “I’m sorry.” There is no way to cheat on this. Those who think the free grace of God is too simplistic misunderstand the importance of the heart. God is not after people who can make a good show of religious devotion. He is after people’s hearts.
The reason I say sincerity and repentance may take some work is that they don’t always come naturally after failing. Sometimes it is very hard to be ready to approach God with genuine sorrow over sin. All the wrestling and lamenting and self-reproach of so many remarkable Christians, from John Owen, Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, Richard Sibbes, John Newton, Charles Simeon, Charles Spurgeon, and J.C. Ryle to John Piper, Kevin DeYoung, Tim Keller, Jerry Bridges, and J.I. Packer is simply this: pursuing sincerity in repentance; working the heart toward devotion to God and away from the coldness and selfishness of sin. Not a bit of it is meant to earn forgiveness or prove ourselves. It is all directed at being genuine in heart and sincere in our affections for God.
As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:9-10)
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. (Luke 18:13-14)

This is the Gospel. Don't let anyone talk you out of it. Sometimes this may cost us much in tears, the dismantling of pride and self-admiration, admitting our faults, humbling ourselves to apologize to others, and destroying the illusions of our own goodness. But it has this precious difference between it and the futile pursuit of earning forgiveness: this working of the heart into repentance is accepted by God even at its most feeble, as long as it is genuine. You don’t have to try to work up a pure heart to be accepted. Those who truly desire to change, even if they are powerless to make any progress, are accepted by God, and then He provides the power for change Himself.
But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; He does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; He wants you alone. 'My son, give me thine heart' (Prov. 23:26). God has come to you to save the sinner. Be glad!
(Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 110, HarperOne edition, 1954).
Jesus is a greater Saviour than you think him to be when your thoughts are at the greatest. My Lord is more ready to pardon than you to sin, more able to forgive than you to transgress. My Master is more willing to supply your wants than you are to confess them. Never tolerate low thoughts of my Lord Jesus.
(Charles Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, August 22).

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Penance Is Not the Same as the Mortification of Sin - One Punishes, the Other Purifies

I gladly proclaimed in my previous post that God does not demand penance after you sin. It is simply not true that “you should feel bad about yourself for a suitable and respectable period of time before you are permitted to be hopeful and encouraged again.” Put another way, you do not have to punish yourself in order to gain God’s acceptance again. He is not waiting for you to work off a debt. God is ready to embrace you again right now. The only thing you must bring is a heart that is sorrowful over sin and repentant.

But we have to be careful that we understand what that means, or we could easily throw out a great deal of Christian teaching and literature that emphasizes the mortification of sin or mourning over sin, thinking that stuff is all the same as penance. What I have described as 'penance' is not how everyone would use the term, but it is the most common perception today. In contrast, the mortification of sin or the pursuit of holiness is not self-punishment, but a quest to purge the heart of sinful desires. Quite a few Christians have written powerfully over the years of the need to prick our own consciences and rend our hearts over the wrong desires within us and the sins we are prone to commit. Richard Sibbes, in his immensely comforting work The Bruised Reed, nonetheless says:
There is a dangerous slighting of the work of humiliation, some alleging this for a pretence for their casual dealing with their own hearts, that Christ will not break the bruised reed; but such must know that every sudden terror and short grief is not that which makes us bruised reeds… but a working our hearts to such a grief as will make sin more odious unto us than punishment, until we offer a ‘holy violence’ against it. (Sibbes, Chapter 2)

By ‘humiliation’ Sibbes does not mean ‘embarrassment’ or putting ourselves to shame. He means the work of humbling ourselves; the act of putting off all of our pride and our desire to look good, and instead being very vulnerable and honest before God about our faults. (This is, in fact, how 'penance' has been understood by some saints in Christian tradition, but it is so often interpreted as I have described it so far that I think it is clearer to draw the distinction between penance as self-punishment and mortification of sin as purification.) One of the things that transformed Martin Luther's understanding of Christianity from a religion demanding we work off our sins under the fear of punishment into embracing the Gospel of justification by faith alone was learning from Erasmus "that the Greek word metanoeite meant ‘to repent’ not ‘to do penance’” – for example, in Matthew 4:17. "[T]his insight was reflected at the first of his 95 Theses." (See Timothy George, Erasmus Before the Storm.) 
How is this different than punishing ourselves over sin? The difference is easy to miss, but is crucial for your faith and your joy. First, the difference is the order in which things happen: the common understanding of penance is that after you turn away to sin, you are expected to do something humbling and uncomfortable for a suitable time before you are fully accepted by God again and all is forgiven; but with repentance, God accepts you immediately when you come to him seeking forgiveness, and He restores you completely. Then you can continue the work of humbling your heart and learning to hate the sin. But you are not expected to put yourself through a ritual of shame and self-punishment first before God will receive you back. He receives you back first.
The second difference is in how God helps you during the process of restoration. With repentance and the free gift of forgiveness made possible by Jesus taking your place on the cross, God embraces you as soon as you turn to Him in regret and then He helps you do the work of searching and purifying your heart. You get restored first, and do the work together. The idea of penance, however, is generally that you have to prove your repentance by working your way back into God’s favor. Instead, the Gospel ensures you don’t face your sins alone. God never stands far off, as if to say, “You got yourself into this mess, now get yourself out.” God is your Savior. All He wants you to do when you get yourself into a mess is to cry out to Him and plead for His mercy, because He loves to be merciful to you and show His goodness. In Psalm 50 the Lord tells Israel that all their burnt offerings don't please Him nearly as much as this:
"Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (Psalm 50:14-15).

Third, penance implies that if you make yourself feel bad enough, or punish yourself enough, God will forgive you. This is a gross perversion of the Gospel. God does not forgive you because you have beat yourself up enough to convince Him you’ve paid for your mistake. God forgives you because Christ already took the punishment for your mistake. There is nothing more you can add to that. Your efforts to “work off” the guilt of your sin are pointless, and worse, they are prideful or distrustful. Either you doubt that Christ’s death really paid for all your sins, and therefore think you have to do more to pay them off (as if the cross wasn’t enough), or you have a prideful desire to be independent, which makes you resist the idea that you can’t add anything to Christ’s sacrifice. You want to pay some of the debt yourself so you feel like you earned your way and did your share.
The Gospel doesn’t leave you any room for this: it proclaims that Christ’s death once for all was a total satisfaction of all judgment and punishment for all our sins. You can’t wear it out, no matter how many times you fail and sin. But you also have to accept it as a free gift, one you didn't do anything to earn. You can’t pay your own way. The only way to receive forgiveness is to be completely dependent on God to give you what you don’t deserve, all because He is that glorious and generous.
You can't make yourself more accepted by God through acts of penance than you are already accepted through Christ. Instead, you can embrace God's gift of forgiveness and then sincerely pursue the humble grief over sin and prayers to be healed that will lead to mortifying (killing) the desire for sin, replacing it with a desire for holiness and deeper intimacy with God. There is no shame to fear in this pursuit of holiness, because Sibbes also wrote: "if we have this for a foundation truth, that there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us, there can be no danger in thorough dealing. It is better to go bruised to heaven than sound to hell."

Saturday, March 12, 2016

You Do Not Need to Punish Yourself Over Sin

This morning I linked to an article full of wise, helpful, and encouraging things you can do in the moments after you have failed and fallen into sin, so that you can receive God's grace and focus on making sure you resist temptation next time. For some, just the use of the word "encouraging" related to what to say to someone after sinning seems out of place and inappropriate. There is a common attitude that if you have fallen into sin, you should feel bad about yourself for a suitable and respectable period of time before you are permitted to be hopeful and encouraged again. I am thankful to say that's not how God deals with us. Further, it doesn't even work.

God Does Not Demand Penance
God does not expect penance, a specific time of self-punishment and self-denial set aside to suffer for your sins. You aren't required to do something before you can be accepted and forgiven. Before the coming of Christ and His placing Himself between our sin and us, taking the full weight and punishment of our guilt on the cross, there was a system in the Hebrew temple for bringing sacrifices before God to atone for the guilt of sin. God set that up through Moses, but He was teaching the people and preparing them for something better: one sacrifice that would take away the guilt of sin forever. The offering of doves and goats on the altar never actually removed the guilt of sin; it was symbolic. (See Hebrews 10:1-18). It pointed the way to the real sacrifice that removed all guilt: Christ. (Hebrews 9:11-15).
Now that Christ has borne our guilt and iniquity, and taken all the penalty of sin onto Himself, there is no purpose for sacrificial offerings anymore. (Hebrews 9:25-28). "For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified." (Heb. 10:14). "Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant." (Heb. 9:15). "He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself." (Heb. 7:27).

Therefore, there is nothing at all to pay. No penance is needed to compensate for sin. Christ already paid it. And as Charles Spurgeon brilliantly said, God is not unjust: what has been paid already, He will never demand to be paid twice. You are not expected by God to take part in paying some of the penalty for your sins. Not even an ounce.

Our biggest difficulty in accepting this is usually that it simply seems too easy. We find it hard to believe that after we've done something shameful or hurtful, God forgives us completely for free. It simply makes more sense to our worldly minds that we should have to pay to get it. Otherwise, can't we just take advantage of God's kindness and do whatever we want? No, because God does expect a couple of things, things that are impossible for people trying to take advantage of His kindness. They are not penance or payment. They are regret and repentance.

Instead, Bring a Broken and Contrite Heart

David makes it clear: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." (Psalm 51:17). The only thing you must bring is a heart that is sorrowful over sin and repentant. You don't have to do something to be forgiven. But it is necessary that you feel something and believe something. If you regret your sin and desire to be healed, you're ready to come to God. But if you are making a show of asking for forgiveness, while smirking on the inside that you're getting away with something, you're in serious trouble. (I examined what it means to have sincere repentance here.)

If you have any doubt that having a repentant heart is enough to be healed even from serious or destructive sins, consider when David wrote Psalm 51. It was after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband Uriah, a faithful soldier serving David, murdered in order to cover it up. Christ did not die on the cross only for little sins. He paid for it all.

Even knowing that, many of us still feel that some period of shame and penance is needed just to be decent and respectful. It feels scandalous to turn around and embrace God's mercy so quickly. It doesn't seem to take sin seriously enough. Part of this is a confusion of emotions. Feeling ashamed and beating yourself up isn't helpful or necessary, but it is perfectly appropriate to feel sorrow and to mourn over sin. We should take the evil of sin seriously, and give thought to how we have dishonored God and harmed or betrayed others by choosing to sin. Sometimes our heartbreak over sin should be very deep and intense, leaving a lasting impact that makes us see sin more clearly and be repulsed by it. But that should not mean we sit far off from God, feeling ashamed to enter His presence until we have grieved long enough. You can remain sorrowful and regretful over sin without waiting before receiving the gift of mercy and comfort from God. The only thing we should slow down for is making sure our heart is actually repentant, so that we come to God sincerely.

How Long Does God Imply We Should Wait Before Seeking Forgiveness? 

If that doubtful feeling that it's not okay to ask God for forgiveness right away still lingers, consider this: God's ordinary way of dealing with us when we confess our sins is immediate acceptance and restoration.

The prodigal son returns home, and doesn't even get the words "Father, I have sinned..." out of his mouth before his father grabs him and embraces him. When he does make his plea to be accepted as a servant and work for his bread, his father ignores it completely and immediately restores him as a son and celebrates his return. (Luke 15:11-32). This is Jesus describing God the Father's heart for sinners.

Stop and reflect on how overwhelming this love and acceptance is: the father doesn't even pause to talk it over. He rushes on so that they won't waste a moment when they can be comforting each other and taking joy in being reconciled again. 
It is very important to the Lord that you not be in doubt about His love and His readiness to accept you. The Gospels and letters in the New Testament are full of invitations to come and be healed. God's love is so great that He does not want His children to bear the sorrow of their sin alone; He comforts us even over our sins against Him. This is what Paul tells us to imitate in how we forgive others. "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness." (Galatians 6:1). He tells the Corinthian church, regarding one who had been confronted about sin, "you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him." (2 Cor. 2:7-8).

Paul even says that forgiving everything and releasing this person from sorrow is necessary "so that we would not be outwitted by Satan[.]" (2 Cor. 2:11). Keeping people divided by sin and unsure of forgiveness is a demonic mission. One of the biggest problems with thinking you need to put yourself through a period of isolation and shame after having sinned, beating yourself up about how bad you are, is that it does nothing to make you stronger in resisting sin. Instead, it cuts you off from the source of your strength and resilience. Letting this person linger in sorrow any longer is dangerous: it makes him vulnerable. We can't afford to lock ourselves in a dungeon away from God until we feel we have suffered appropriately for sinning. What we need in that very moment is His strength to lean on.

God does not stand far off when we have sinned. He is right next to us, longing to pick us up again. Jesus displays His heart and empathizes with our failures: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." (Hebrews 4:15-16). Don't hesitate. Run home with confidence.

Free from Pornography and Every Addiction that Grips Your Soul

This is what you need to hear after you've fallen again. It is rare for a pastor or teacher to write something for you to read right after you just gave in to sin and indulged in temptation. But this is the encouragement you need right now, even minutes after downloading pornography, or getting drunk again even though you promised "never again," or writing secretly to that person who is taking the place of your spouse in your emotions. Boldly calling it Seven Things to Do After You Look at Pornography, Paul Maxwell gives us an article that spares you both the lame, unhelpful suggestions and the shaming. Instead, he gives comfort, hope, and good advice on what to do right now to change things. It applies equally to just about any addiction or temptation.

Below is the Cliff Notes version, where I tried to pull out and copy the main points. Everything below is from Maxwell except a few comments in italics from me. I have read a lot of things written to help with addiction, and watched many people struggle with it. This stuff is among the best I've seen.

"It is often in the moment after the closed door, the darkness, the screen-light, the hidden act — after pornography indulgence — that Satan spins his most eloquent web: menacing patterns of thinking; bargaining with a disapproving and distant God; twisting us in on ourselves in self-hatred. It is in the moment after pornography indulgence that Satan does his finest work. It is in this moment that we need God to do his finest saving. "

1. Know Your Enemy

As soon as you indulge, you either plunge into self-hatred, or into self-avoidance. Satan is satisfied either way. Both paths believe his accusations (Matthew 16:23; 2 Corinthians 7:10).

Don’t forget: After you indulge, you are still mid-battle with a tenacious, evil person bent on stealing your life, and he has not yet gotten it.

[Don't withdraw from God and hide after you have sinned. That's when you need to run to Him most desperately. The battle is not over after you fall into sin; whether you turn to God in regret and plead for mercy and help is the most important battle. The heart of your fight is whether you will trust that His grace is sufficient for you, or doubt Him and neglect His help. Satan can't beat you just by leading you into sin. He can by causing you to stop trusting God for restoration.]

2. Fight Self-Hatred

Wallowing in self-deprecation and feeling like paying penance to God for sin is a sad and ironclad torture. It is false, and it is a wicked oppression. But grace does have a word on this.

If you are tempted to wallow, don’t let your (good) intuitive hatred of sin lead you to hate yourself. Be patient with yourself, because God is patient. He is fighting for your life (Genesis 32:24; John 10:10). He has not forgotten you. He has not left you. Keep fighting with him. Keep gasping for the air of divine life — the Life-Giving Spirit (1 Corinthians 15:45).

[Shaming and hating yourself is not humble or repentant. It is degrading and weakens you for further addiction and escapism. People who hate themselves tend to keep wallowing in sin because they don't think they matter anymore. The only way to overcome addiction is to care about yourself and to believe that God cares for you too. To have a will to resist sin, you must believe your life is worth fighting for (and God does, so who are you to disagree with Him?).]

3. Fight the Haze

What is impurity? It is feasting that becomes self-isolated, avoiding of God and man and self, numbed, dazed, deadened, desensitized. Sexual impurity induces a spiritual cataract. Again, the feeling is common — browser history cleared, slogging through the rest of the day, lumbering from task to task, from person to person — meaningless, personless, passionless. This experience is integrated into the fabric of pornography indulgence.

Morning mercies can be the emotional reset button we need when we spend our daily emotional cache on pornography (Lamentations 3:22–24). The lamenter is gasping. He prays what he cannot do. “The Lord is my portion . . . therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:24). Really? Will you hope in him? Prayer is an act of hope. The prayer is the lamenter’s portion of the Lord’s work. Keep taking a step forward. Keep taking a breath. Without repeated indulgence, the haze will eventually wear off.

4. Guard Others

Pornography is a training session in the skill of using others for personal pleasure. Just be aware that you are now inclined to use people in close relationship the same way you use those in pornography — with selfish motive, with neglectful attitude, unrepentantly. Pornography puts relational blinders on us — it deeply impedes our ability to love others well. So, the best course of action is to walk as if we have physical blinders on: Tread slowly, and assume that we are currently very vulnerable and prone to treat those around us as subhuman. After indulgence, it is vital to keep in mind that those not on the screen deserve the respect and dignity that we just failed to show those on the screen.

[Be watchful: addiction is always self-serving, and puts your own pleasure or relief above everyone else. It changes how you see people. Using pornography makes it very difficult to look at a woman without seeing her as another possible object of sexual desire. If nothing else convinces you to flee pornography and other addictions, the fact that your mind is demeaning other people into objects to feed your desires should scare you off.]

5. Confess to a Friend

The purpose of confession is “that you may be healed” and “pray for one another” (James 5:16). Of course, the value of “the prayer of a righteous person” is that it “has great power as it is working” (James 5:16). Power to do what? To “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

6. Use Your Clarity for Good

Yes, there might be a haze after indulgence. But there can also be a flood of clarity — the hindsight of regret. “When Judas . . . saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind” (Matthew 27:3). Judas’s clarity took him down a wrong path. But you can use your clarity to get back on the right one.

As Piper might say, “Don’t waste your regret.” Use it for God’s glory and your joy. Set up boundaries. Use the clarity that will surely fade before the next moment of temptation to build structures that will prevent this again.

7. Know Your God

Remember this: God loves you so, so much. He is unsettled by us (Genesis 6:6), and brokenhearted with us, and powerfully for you (Psalm 34:17–19). The haze can block us from God: “The stupid man cannot know; the fool cannot understand” (Psalm 92:6). But even when we cannot see him, even when we fail to obey him, let us pray: God, frustrate our plans to disobey (Nehemiah 4:15), and “no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). More than anything: “God, help us to cast all our anxieties on you, because you care for us” (1 Peter 5:6–7).

Know the difference between the God-mask Satan would wear to deceive you: disgusted, distant, unavailable, disinterested, and remember the face of your real God: loving, patient, working, unsurprised, unrelenting, unwavering in his grasp on you. He won’t let you go.