“The mind is its own place and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of heaven.”
Thus insists John Milton in Paradise Lost as he poetically describes some of the nasty experiences we’ve had with ourselves, trapped in our own minds. It’s his poetic way of saying what wise counselors impart even today, namely, that it isn’t always what happens to us that is determinative for us but rather what we tell ourselves about what happens to us that will have the largest impact on our future lives.
One of the hellish environments we can create in our own noodles by telling ourselves the wrong things results from a failure to receive Christ’s forgiveness. We of course might experience it as “not being able to forgive ourselves.”
You may recognize this hellish and tortured state as it is. Or the forgiveness you find hard to believe may leak out of you from subterranean depths within as criticism, severity, or scrutinizing harshness toward others.
Presuming God Shares Our Self-Disgust
As I read some place, “we tend to make others feel the way the world has made us feel”...and the Christian, of course, would add, we tend to make others feel the way our relationship with God is making us feel. And of course the way we experience it is often based on presumption...presuming he shares our disgust of us.
But our interpretation of God’s evaluation of us and his actual evaluation are not always the same.
The realm of receiving forgiveness is one of those where we’re liable to swap our own evaluations for the actual one.
There are at least two major impediments to clearing up this tangled mess so that we can actually believe in AND receive God’s debt-clearing forgiveness.
Impediment 1: Our Diligent Nemesis Who Wants to Demoralize Us
One is, as we know but forget, we have an enemy whose self-appointed cosmic vocation is to accuse, attack, and demoralize us with a constant refrain of how we have failed God or someone else. It might sound in your head like a prophet of the Lord denouncing your allegiance to Christ. How could you have done that? You should’ve helped that person. I can’t believe you said that. You are a terrible mother! It harshly belittles you. But it is indeed a false prophet’s voice.
For Christ, we know, “has reconciled us to God through his physical body, sacrificed on our behalf, and presented us as holy in God’s eyes, without blemish or defect, AND get this, free from accusation...!” (Colossians 1:22)
So don’t co-labor with your Nemesis. Whenever you are should-ing all over yourself, castigating yourself, continually chiding yourself, and recounting all the reasons you are a spiritual fraud, first of all, as Bob Newhart once insisted in a viral skit, “STOP IT!“
Then, say out loud:
“Wait a second. I don’t work with Satan. He condemns me. I belong to Jesus Christ. He was condemned FOR me. Satan wants me to be ground down. Jesus wants to build me up. Satan wants to push me away from God (because the guilt that adheres to you like dog hair on your suede jacket will make God seem like the last person you want to hang around). Jesus sacrificed to bring me near to God.”
Martin Luther insisted that learning to depict Christ rightly, like this, to the heart is the “highest and most difficult of arts for the Christian.” He continues, “He (Christ) is the Dispenser of grace, the Savior, and the Pitier....” and trusting this picture will help us detect counterfeits. ”Then,” Luther declares, “when the devil comes. disguised as Christ and harassing us under His name, we will know that lie is not Christ, but that he is really the devil. For Christ is the joy and sweetness of a trembling and troubled heart.”
Our Savior is “joy and sweetness” for our “trembling and troubled hearts.” Encountering fear and sourness is a sure sign that we’re not dealing with the One who means for us to know we are now clean before him. So don’t tag team with Satan by doing his job for him by impatiently and derisively accusing and disqualifying yourself from forgiveness. God has accepted you in Christ. Don’t let Satan, cloaked in your own damning self-assessments convince you otherwise. And definitely don’t get duped into thinking his fanger-waggin’ comes from the scar-marked hands of your patient Savior. To do so is to erect a huge barrier to receiving forgiveness.
Impediment 2: Believing Forgiveness is For Everyone BUT us!
Another road-block to be destroyed on the journey to believing and receiving Christ’s forgiveness comes from an upside down sort of pride that accidentally comes to believe that though forgiveness applies to others, it doesn’t to you, because what you did was too bad, or you knew better, or some other such irrelevancy.
To this malady, let me urge you to, again:
1) “STOP IT!” (cf. Bob Newhart) and
2) Practice playing make believe. Believing, as Dallas Willard used to say, “is being prepared to act as if something were so.” So believing in God’s forgiveness is being prepared to act as if we actually are, whether it feels quite like it or not.
Confess the dark, nagging matter you feel unforgiven for (it might help to tell a wise friend, elder, or pastor), then imagine that sin like a cancerous mole being cut off you and then stuck to Jesus. Or envision that staining sin being lifted from you and being placed on Jesus, on his awful cross. Or conceive all your failure and infractions being placed on a scapegoat, who then literally carries those “too deep to undo” sins far off into the wilderness, never to be heard from again.
Our sins can either remain on our own heads, or on the head of Jesus. We can pay for them or he can. Those are the options.
But he already has. So it is foolish for us to self-fund a terrible punitive stance toward ourselves when Christ has already spent himself to purge our indebtedness to God. Now it is for the simple humility of empty, outstretched hands to actively and actually receive his gift of forgiveness.
And then, and here is the wonderful part, pretend (if you cannot feel it yet) that it is true. If you knew, really really knew, that though you have been awful in embarrassing ways, that Jesus really had TOTALLY cleaned you, accepted you, AND that he really liked you, what would you do? How would you act?
When you figure out an honest and appropriate answer (clapping, singing, warmth, kindness, skipping should likely be involved if you conceive a sufficient answer), then do it!
Yes, that’s right.
Act like you are clean.
Talk to others and God as if he has NOTHING against you.
As if he is really rather pleased with you and glad you are his.
Faith says you are permitted to make-believe that what is not always apparent to your own emotions or thoughts but has been insisted on by God, IS actually the case.
So pretend you are free of that sin, (because you really are), and then ask Jesus, like David did, to make “the broken bones” you’ve got from your failures “to once more rejoice”...in other words, make it so it doesn’t seem you are merely pretending.
Our answer to our guilty conscience, says John White, or to our past failures, is generally some manner of self-atonement--something we do. But God’s remedy is the sacrifice of his Son. Make sure you aren’t discounting that sacrifice meant both to free you from accusation and to make you a happy representative of the Gentle Shepherd-King who has given us the vocation of showing his astonishing and liberating patience everywhere we go.
If we learn not to do Satan’s job, be patient with ourselves like Christ is with us and to pretend that what Christ has said and done ACTUALLY applies profoundly to us, we will convert hellish internal states in our unwell world and minds to heavenly ones---and no longer the other way around.
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at email@example.com